Wheeler name change supporters plead school board to take action

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

“Why don’t you want to have this discussion? Why won’t you respond when we reach out? Why won’t you address it? I’d like a written response answering these three questions within 30 days,” Wheeler Name Change organizer and student Zoe Shepard asked Cobb Board of Education members.

Student organizers and supporters behind the Wheeler Name Change campaign pleaded to Cobb’s school board at their monthly meeting Thursday evening to take action toward renaming the high school named for a Confederate general.

After a nearly year-long campaign, a petition with nearly 5,000 signatures, numerous emails made to school board members, a town hall, and much more work, the students expressed frustration at the board for ignoring their calls to change their school’s name.

Wheeler Name Change supporters want to rename Joseph Wheeler High School in Marietta. The school was named for Joseph Wheeler, who was a Confederate cavalry general during the Civil War.

Wheeler opened in 1965, the same year Cobb County was essentially forced to integrate schools.

Today, a plurality of Black students attend Wheeler.

Students and supporters spoke during the public comments section of the board’s evening portion of their meeting.

They said they do not want to attend a school whose name represents slavery and white supremacy.

“I attend a school whose namesake honors a man who actively fought for a government that worked to ensure that people had the right to own people that look like me,” Shepard, who is Black, told the board. “It is … important that we foster a space of cultural sensitivity and addressing this name change is one way to do so.”

Before the meeting, Wheeler Name Change organizer Jake McGhee said that the group has tried to make their research on Wheeler a board agenda item and was twice denied.

Despite the Democratic members of the board openly supporting Wheeler Name Change, the GOP-dominated board set a rule in place that says there must be a four-person majority to get items on the agenda.

This rule has made it difficult for Democrats to get issues they see as important to be talked about at all during school board meetings.

The school board is divided along political and racial lines, with all three Democrats Black and all four Republicans white.

The school board continues to face criticism from students and its own members that the Black members of the board are being silenced by the white members.

When the Courier reached out to the school board, Howard said that he, Davis and Hutchins all support putting the Wheeler Name Change students’ research on an agenda item.

He said the only thing that stands in the way is the Republican members of the board.

Howard said in an email:

“I’ve been extremely impressed by the student-led advocacy for a Wheeler name change. I, along with Mrs. Davis and Mr. Hutchins, strongly support an agenda item for the entire board to hear their full presentation. I also support the re-formation of the board committee to evaluate our school names across the district. The infamous votes during the November 2020 board meeting both dissolved the school names committee and changed the rules so that it is nearly impossible for the minority board members to get items on our agenda. I strongly urge our board chairman to reconsider.”

At the same November meeting where Republican members shut out Democrats from getting items on the agenda, Republicans also voted to dissolve a committee that would research the history of school names such as Wheeler.

This was much to the disappointment of the Democratic members and Wheeler Name Change supporters.

But students and supporters who want to get rid of symbols of racism made it clear that they will not stop addressing the board until the board takes them up on their matter.

Wheeler student Jiselle Jackson told the board that the debate over Wheeler’s name goes beyond who Wheeler was as a person.

“It’s about values and moral character, building communities [based] on those of fair treatment and kindness,” Jackson said. “After learning the truth, I cannot say Joseph Wheeler represents any of the above.”

Wheeler Name Change also has some support from students attending other Cobb County schools.

South Cobb High School student Jada Foote pointed out that some parents do not feel comfortable sending their children to Wheeler High because it represents someone who fought to preserve slavery.

Foote asked the board if they want their legacy to be protecting one of the last symbols of the Confederacy in the Marietta area.

“ … This board has the power to change the name of Wheeler High School yet it hasn’t,” Foote said. “Please take this into consideration. If not, I will be happy to see you again with the same request. Thank you.”

Another South Cobb student named Sydney Tessman told the board that changing the school’s name comes down to a question of what the district’s values are.

“If you claim your schools are spaces where students belong and are valued, then why are you choosing to ignore and disregard the many calls from your very own students who you are here to serve?” Tessman asked.

Tessman said that by the board beginning to work on a Wheeler name change, that can open the door to larger conversations the school district must have about systemic racism.

“My hope is that the board grows quickly to understand there’s no place in our county for Confederate symbols,” Tessman said. “Please align your values with the community that you serve now — not the community of 1965. This injustice can be corrected through the power of the board. Please show us your values.”

When the Courier reached out to board members David Banks, David Chastain, Randy Scamihorn and Brad Wheeler, they did not reply.

Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.