Dissolution of school naming committee sparks conflict on school board

The logo on front of a Cobb County School District facilityCobb County School District sign (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

Democratic school board members Charisse Davis, Dr. Jaha Howard and incoming board member Leroy “Tre” Hutchins are dismayed that the board voted to dissolve a committee to study the racist history of names and mascots of schools around the county.

The committee was initially approved in August of 2020 by Democrats Davis, Howard, David Morgan and Republican Brad Wheeler in a 4-3 vote. Republicans Randy Scamihorn, David Banks and David Chastain voted against the committee.

The committee was influenced by the activism of students at Joseph Wheeler High School in Marietta. Some students formed a group called now called Wheeler Name Change and started a petition to change the school name in June.

The group’s petition, which has nearly 5,000 signatures, wants to change the name of Wheeler High School because it was named after Joseph Wheeler, a Confederate general during the Civil War.

In 1965, Cobb was pressured by civil rights groups locally and statewide into integrating its schools. This is also the same year Wheeler was opened.

Wheeler currently has a plurality of Black students at its school, and a non-white majority.

There is also a petition with nearly 4,000 signatures to rename George Walton Comprehensive High School in Marietta. A Black student began the petition.

Walton was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and governors of Georgia whose wife owned slaves. Walton also helped steal land from the indigenous Cherokee and Creek people in what became the full confines of Georgia, according to the petition.

At the Cobb school board meeting Nov. 19, 2020, the board voted to dissolve the committee that would look at names like Wheeler and Walton and possibly recommend name changes.

The vote was 4-2, with Brad Wheeler switching sides and supporting Scamihorn, Chastain and Banks. Davis and Howard voted against dissolving the committee. Morgan was not present at the meeting.

The committee had not had any meeting times set and people were not publicly named to be on the committee before the majority of the board decided to dissolve it last month.

The Courier reached out to Davis, Howard, Hutchins and Brad Wheeler about the sudden reverse in creating a committee.

Brad Wheeler is not related to Joseph Wheeler.

“The bottom line is, if any change is going to take place it has to take place by a board vote,” Brad Wheeler said. “A committee doesn’t make that decision, the decision is made by your elected board members.”

Wheeler said although he does not know if the naming committee would have done this, he said a committee in the past has attempted to usurp the power of the board.

Wheeler said instead of a committee making the recommendation about names, why doesn’t a board member make it?

Hutchins, who will be taking Morgan’s post on the board, said he hoped the board will reinstate the committee.

“The purpose of the committee was to review how schools are named within the CCSD; whether that be old and new schools,” Hutchins said in a statement. “To have dissolved the committee after just recently adopting its inception without any thorough explanation seems disingenuous. It is my hope, the BOE will either revisit a committee so we can move forward with the purpose of ensuring Cobb Schools is the best place to teach and learn for all students within this very diverse County.”

Howard said that he supports the students fighting for a name change.

“I strongly support our brilliant students and dedicated staff and parents in demanding that we evaluate our school names,” Howard said in a statement. “We must acknowledge our shared history, no matter how painful, and move forward stronger as a family.”

Davis said that in an email exchange in late October with Brad Wheeler, Wheeler implied that they were going forward with the committee and specifically, that Davis, Chastain and Morgan would be on the committee to study the names. The public had not yet been made aware of who was going to be on the committee.

Davis said she found it odd that Morgan was appointed because Morgan would soon be leaving his post.

Davis also said she is not sure if Wheeler initially supporting the committee was a way to help Wheeler’s re-election campaign, which he won last month. She said it appears that way, though.

“[Wheeler] thought about [the committee] enough at length to know who was going to be on it, so what changed?” Davis asked. “And why would you want anybody to have the perception that it had something to do with the fact that you won your re-election … for me, if that wasn’t true, I wouldn’t want people to think that.”

One of the reasons Wheeler said he voted to dissolve the committee was that he thought the name change decisions should be put up to a board vote.

Davis said she did not understand what Wheeler meant by this.

“What does that even mean?” Davis said. “Because it’s not coming up on an agenda. Is Mr. Wheeler proposing that it be on an agenda?”

Davis said it is difficult for her and Howard to get anything on the agenda because at the same November meeting the committee was dissolved, the board voted that there should be a four-person majority to get items on the agenda.

Votes are often split between the Republicans and Democrats on the board, with Republicans in a four-person majority vote.

Davis also said it’s “almost like an excuse” when Wheeler said to leave the name change decision up to the board.

The committee was also intended to study racist names and mascots at county schools, not just Wheeler and Walton, Davis said.

“[Wheeler] is not the only school whose name is problematic,” Davis said. “Another thing I was interested in adding to that conversation … as a committee, [is] looking at some of our mascots because McEachern, they have the Indian and they actually have a fiberglass statue of a Native man over the football field.”

Wheeler also said he had spoken to community members about the name change and deemed it best the board vote on the name change as a way to better represent the community.

This also does not make sense to Davis.

“Mr. Wheeler explains it as ‘I thought it should be more about board members’ but that’s exactly what a committee is,” Davis said.

Davis also said Wheeler was not transparent on which community members he met with and meeting with these members was “very much not appropriate.”

Davis said she does not know what the next steps are but made it clear she wants to examine the names and mascots representing schools around Cobb County.

The Cleveland baseball team’s decision to get rid of the “Indians” mascot and Atlanta changing the names of schools associated with two white supremacists just this week are examples of name changes Davis pointed to for inspiration.

Boston Celtics player and Wheeler alumni Jaylen Brown has also expressed support for the students demanding a name change.

When Wheeler students found a yearbook from the year the school opened, the yearbook was very clear that the school was named after General Joseph Wheeler, Davis said.

“This is about him being a Confederate general,” Davis said. “We also know that Wheeler opened the same exact year that Cobb actually integrated schools, which of course, comes 11 years after Brown v. Board of Education, so [Cobb] fought integration for over a decade and then when they finally open up the school, they finally integrate the school and that is who they name it for. That’s not by accident.”

In addition to their concerns about racism, the Wheeler students advocated not just for the name change but for the board members of color, Davis said.

“[The students] also had watched our meeting and were expressing concern about what they saw on the board as systemic racism,” Davis said. “… what they see on the board as the silencing of voices of board members.”

Overall, Davis believes the Wheeler students must continue to hold Brad Wheeler and the entire school board accountable for what they initially said about the committee.

Davis also said she was really impressed with the Wheeler Name Change students.

Community members of all ages and backgrounds emailed Davis standing with the students, she said.

“[The students] have been super impressive,” Davis said. “Their leadership skills and their organizational skills, the effort and the time that they’re putting in to not just saying ‘we don’t like this name,’ but actually researching the history of their school. It is just awe-inspiring and I think people really need to pay attention to that and be proud of what they’re doing.”

Arielle Robinson is an undergrad at Kennesaw State University. She is the president of the university’s Society of Professional Journalists and an editor at the KSU Sentinel. She enjoys music, reading poetry and non-fiction books and collecting books and records.