Students and parents concerned about the racist legacy of Joseph E. Wheeler High School in Marietta exercised complete control over the public comment section of Cobb’s Board of Education monthly meeting Thursday evening.
Wheeler Name Change supporters spoke the entire 30-minute duration dedicated in school board meetings to hearing comments from the public.
Each person who wants to speak during public comments has two minutes allotted to them.
Name change supporters said that they had tried three times to get their research presentation on the board’s agenda but were denied each time.
Because the board would not allow their research to be an agenda item, the organizers instead condensed the larger research slideshow they put together on Wheeler High School and Cobb County.
Wheeler activists discussed who Joseph Wheeler was as an individual and wider details of Cobb County and its segregationist history during each person’s allotted two minutes.
The slideshow includes the numerous arguments Wheeler Name Change supporters make as to why they believe Cobb’s school board must change the name of the school.
Below is a transcription of what student organizers said Thursday evening:
Zoe Shepard: “As requested by a member of this board and in accordance with our mission to be agents of change, we are here to provide you our research presentation.
… The renaming of Joseph E. Wheeler High School would serve to better accurately represent the student population and the overarching values of the Cobb County school system. Joseph E. Wheeler, a general in and symbol of the Confederacy does not and has never represented the values or students of the school.
Additionally, its renaming would be just one of the many Confederate monuments that are being removed across the country. Considering this, by not changing the name, you’re communicating that you agree with the commemoration of this person, and subsequently have found nothing wrong with the relevant historical data under which the name was adopted and what it continues to perpetuate.
Our neighboring district, Atlanta Public Schools, recently renamed Forrest Hill Academy, named after Confederate soldier and the first Grand Wizard of the [Ku Klux Klan]. [Forrest] also worked with Joseph E. Wheeler in the cavalry of the army of Tennessee.
If their school can be renamed, why can’t ours?
Our initiative has been met with overwhelming community support, including approximately 6,056 signatures.
Teachers, students, alumni, and community members outside of Cobb concur that we do not agree with the values that this name reflects on our school or on Cobb County as a whole.
Furthermore, the name does not meet the current Cobb naming mandate FDC-R Rule A. 2. b, which states the person must have made a significant educational, historical or social contribution in the community. We appreciate your time and are looking forward to seeing an understanding of the material presented this evening.”
Jake McGhee: “Joseph E. Wheeler was born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1836. His father, Joseph Wheeler Sr., was a banker, cotton broker and real estate speculator. The younger Wheeler — who our school is named after — was destined to become a businessman, but he chose instead a career as a soldier early on.
When the Civil War broke out, he joined the cavalry and was stationed mainly in Tennessee — not in Georgia. He served as the commander of the Confederate Army in Tennessee as well — not Georgia. He fought in Cobb County once, crossing the Chattahoochee in an attempt to destroy the railroad William T. Sherman was using to supply his force in Chattanooga. After the Civil War, he settled in Alabama — not Georgia — where he served as a state representative and worked as a farmer and a lawyer.
So, Joseph Wheeler’s acquired connection to our area as a school namesake rests solely on his limited service as a commander of the Confederacy.
While he was born in Augusta, this can’t really be considered a personal contribution to Cobb County.
He went on to serve in the Spanish-American War after being appointed by President McKinley, and as a general in the Philippine-American War. In 1900, he retired to New York and after his death in 1906 he was buried in Arlington Cemetery.
The later portion of his life only reemphasizes that his connection to our state, much less Cobb County, is not only limited but entirely dependent on his efforts as a Confederate.
He didn’t donate the land on which Wheeler was built, either. While his impact can be potentially seen as historical, it is difficult to make the argument that one battle near Cobb County is significant. And according to the standard, the historical time must be within the community. In the end, Joseph Wheeler as a figure does not hold up to today’s naming standards, which we find provides ground to reevaluate the name and how it reflects our community today. Thank you.”
Rachel Toole: “We often have those same [arguments] about Joseph Wheeler’s life used to only explain when he’s an honorable man or to argue that he turned himself around, but that isn’t actually what this is about. This issue isn’t about the morality of Joseph Wheeler as an individual.
When his name was selected for our school in 1964 — nearly 60 years after his death — he wasn’t chosen for his service as a state representative of Alabama, or as a general in the Spanish-American War.
He’s chosen as a symbol of a particular set of ideas and values, just like every namesake is. Some are chosen for their perseverance or commitment to uplifting their community. However, in the middle of the modern Civil Rights era as the county was struggling to formulate an adequate plan for integration, Joseph Wheeler, the man who is connected to this area by his service as a Confederate general, was chosen as a symbol of Confederate ideals.
The first yearbook from our school simply states about our namesake, ‘this place which bears the name of Confederate General Joseph E. Wheeler.’
No one knew him as anything else but a Confederate even back then, partly because that part of his life is likely the precise reason he was selected as the namesake. His name was used for the purpose of exclusion, which becomes particularly clear when you consider the context of the time period …
His life as an individual is well preserved. His house in Alabama is owned by the Alabama Historical Commission, which you can visit to learn about the full story of his life.
By evaluating what message his name was used to send when it was placed on our school buildings, you will not be erasing the life story of Joseph Wheeler. The name of our school wasn’t used to commemorate [his life] — only to immortalize his service in the Confederacy and use his name as a symbol of Confederate ideals — which do our student body a disservice today.
Overall, when we discuss the name of our school, it’s important to keep in mind that this is no longer about Joseph Wheeler as an individual, but what values and messages his name represents.”
Sydney Spessard: “An essential step in understanding our efforts is to remember what the Confederacy represented. To do so, I’d like to read you a quote from a report written by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
‘There is no doubt among reputable historians that the Confederacy was established upon the premise of white supremacy, and that the South fought the Civil War to preserve its slave labor. Its founding documents and its leaders were clear. “Our new government is founded upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” declared Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens. It’s also beyond question that the Confederate flag was used extensively by the Ku Klux Klan. George Wallace, Alabama’s governor, unfurled the flag above the state capitol in 1963, shortly after vowing “segregation forever.” In many other cases, schools, parks and streets were named for Confederate icons during the era of white resistance to equality.’
Now there have been many attempts to redefine the Confederacy as a noble endeavor, one that was necessary to protect the Constitution and to defend the rights of slaveholders from Northern aggression.
This is known as revisionism.
As the SPLC states, ‘this deeply rooted but false narrative is the result of many decades of revisionism and the lore and even textbooks of the South that sought to create a more acceptable version of the region’s past. The Confederate monuments and other symbols that dot the South are very much a part of that effort.’
Not only did Wheeler himself perpetuate revisionism in his own speeches. Much of the objections to the name change is rooted in revisionist ideals as well. We must not forget Alexander H. Stephens’ words. ‘The great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. Slavery, subordination to the superior race.’
His words are clear. That is what the Confederacy represents. That is what a Confederate soldier represents.”
Nina Kesava: “I would like to direct your attention to the more physical representations of Confederate motivations.
“The dedication of Confederate monuments and the use of Confederate names began shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865 — but two distinct periods saw some very significant spikes.
The early 1900s marked the enactment of Jim Crow laws in order to disenfranchise African-Americans and resegregate society after several decades of integration that followed Reconstruction.
The number of Civil War monuments in 1911 is approximately three times the number of monuments at the start of the century, with numbers rising almost immediately after the Plessy v. Ferguson trials.
Additionally, the mid-1950s until the late 1960s — a time historically known to encompass the modern Civil Rights Movement — also saw a spike in Confederate monuments. Keep in mind that this was also the same time period Joseph E. Wheeler High School was named and established.
I would like to conclude with an argument that we have heard countless times — that Wheeler was a brave soldier, that he didn’t own slaves and that he was simply fighting for his home.
We counter this with the fact that our current issue isn’t about the personal motivations of one soldier. It is clear that as a government, the Confederacy endorsed slavery and the idea of white supremacy.
This is all clearly stated in the Confederate Constitution, Confederate state secession documents and even statements by the Confederacy’s leadership.
The name of our high school symbolizes Confederate sentiments. Any symbol of the Confederacy, regardless of the individual intentions of the man behind the uniform or who he was before after donning the uniform is inconsequential. I implore you to look at the bigger picture because the tangible evidence is right there before your eyes.”
Caroline Hugh: “I’ve said this many times before now, but the Cobb County school board voted to integrate on March 1, 1965 — 11 years after the passage of Brown v. Board of Education. And this was two days before the federally mandated deadline.
When they did vote, the board member representing Wheeler High School — Mr. Eugene Housley — dissented.
I actually had a phone call with Mr. Housley and he confirmed our facts and said the superintendent dissented as well.
If you look through the CCSD archives from then, you’ll see that the board had been educated repeatedly on the repercussions of continuing to defy the Civil Rights Act and had received letters from parents urging them to comply.
… At its root, the decision to integrate was mainly financial and the board postponed integration as long as they possibly could. You can see the progression compliance carried forward in the initial integration plan, which wouldn’t have achieved full integration until 1970.
[CCSD] actually needed help from the [United States] Department of Housing, Education, and Welfare to come up with an acceptable plan at all.
Finally, the county celebrated a few holidays with significant nods to the Confederacy, including Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Alexander Stephens’ birthday. Does any of this indicate an environment that is welcoming or inclusive?
While we can never know exactly what was going through the board’s mind when they named Joseph E. Wheeler High School, the atmosphere at the time heavily suggests that exclusion was their goal — and even barring all of this historic context, you have students here today who are negatively affected by this name, and shouldn’t that alone be enough for you?”
Ana Valencia: “CCSD board member Tom R. Wooden wrote a letter in which he discussed that the board presented three different options to opt-out of signing form 441-B, which would desegregate Cobb County schools.
According to Cobb school board archives, ‘the failure to sign … 441-B would immediately delete from our finances approximately $2.5 million.’
In a discussion of how to proceed, the board members discuss increasing taxes, cutting teacher salaries by 15 percent and eliminating school bus services.
Afterwards, they concluded that they would integrate the schools for the school year of 1966 through ‘67 to prevent from losing federal funding of $2.5 million. This meant that the board only chose to integrate the school system to receive needed economic aids, after realizing that all plans to conserve money and efforts to avoid integration wouldn’t work.
… On August 12, 1964, the board chose the name Wheeler High School without any community discussion. It was a decision made only by those in a position of power.
On March 10, 1965, a petition was brought to the board to change the name to East Cobb Senior High.
In 1965, the community was denied the opportunity to have an open discussion. Today, we risk making the same mistake. We can choose to do things differently this time. When you know better, you do better.”
Jiselle Jackson: “As we continue the discussion examining the climate, culture and core beliefs of Cobb County at the point in history in which Wheeler received its name and was integrated, we thought it’d be most appropriate to hear about the experiences of someone closest to the issue — a Wheeler student who experienced this all firsthand and a quote from a 1971 alumni who attended East Cobb Junior High and Wheeler High School.
[The 1971 alum said] ‘East Cobb Junior High where I went … we were the “Rebels.” Our mascot was a cartoon rebel general and our fight song was “Dixie” — it wasn’t very subtle.’
… In addition, we were able to explore the early yearbooks of East Cobb Junior High from the years 1964 to 1969, the mascot people … can be seen in a Confederate soldier uniform brandishing a belt labeled ‘CSA,’ standing for the Confederate States of America. He’s also depicted at times wearing an apron embellishing the Confederate flag.
The cheerleading team held Confederate flags in their team pictures in the 1966 to 67 yearbooks and were known as the ‘Rebelettes.’
The photo from the 1969 yearbook shows a teacher hanging the 1956 Georgia state flag. This flag, according to the official Georgia encyclopedia, was changed in 1956 legislation so it would include the Confederate battle flag — a flag, might I add, that up until that time post-Civil War had been adopted by hate groups such as the KKK.
As we look back on the actions of those in power and see that they were made in accordance with their beliefs at the time I believe we can all agree that the actions we take now should represent the same when others look back on us. This begs the question, in alignment with the decision not to change Wheeler’s name, what message we’d be sending and what beliefs we would be fighting for?”
Darshini Sriman [an earlier version of this article misspelled this student’s name. Our apologies]: “In 1965, the [Georgia] General Assembly voted to create MARTA as a system to serve the city of Atlanta as well as Clayton, Cobb and other counties.
Voters in Cobb, however, were not on board.
At the time the CCSD voted to integrate, Cobb residents wanted nothing to do with MARTA.
The vote spoke overwhelmingly to their desire to resist the changes that were happening at the time. The Atlanta Magazine states that this was not just ‘about transportation — they were referendums on race.’
Some parts of Atlanta’s infrastructure were built at the convenience of one group of people and the inconvenience of another.
According to history professor from Georgia Tech Ronald H. Bayor, the interstate highway now called Downtown Connector ‘gutted Black neighborhoods by forcing the removal of many working class Black people from the central business district.’
At this time, suburbia could be deemed untouched, had the power to negotiate what resided in their areas, yet the working class Black people did not have the same say.
Furthermore, the original plan of the interstate highway was designed to run straight through the Atlanta Life Insurance Company — a major Black-owned business coincidentally owned by a former slave by the name of Alonzo Franklin Herndon.
Along with all of this, a group of white citizens met at Sedalia Park Elementary to protest integration entirely and continued on by joining the KKK rally in Cobb.
Taking all this into account, hostility is an adequate word to explain what the citizens of Cobb felt during this tumultuous time.
The desire to remain separate permeated their lives so much so that it affected their choice on whether to implement public transportation.”
Sonaj Sanders: “After hearing the historical facts and information brought up previously, it should be evident to everyone here that things need to be reformed on a county-wide scale — not just Wheeler.
Direct action needs to be taken in order to carry out this reformation.
This is a call on the board to adopt a naming policy similar to adjacent districts such as Marietta City Schools, which I will quote here:
‘If the board names a facility, and it is later determined that the individual or entity for whom the facility/area is named, was not the type of person that would promote the honor and integrity of the facility or the system as a whole, the board would have the power to change the name, whether or not a donation had been made.’
Another district with a similar guideline would be Gwinnett County Public Schools. As quoted from their naming policy:
‘The first consideration of the board in name selections shall be the honor and integrity which the name will reflect upon the school.’
We also urge the board for a reinstatement of a previously dismantled committee dedicated to evaluating the names of facilities across Cobb and an evaluation of Wheeler High School’s name.
Our county would not be the first in Georgia to do this. Looking to our neighboring district, Atlanta Public Schools, who recently unanimously voted amongst their board to change the names of three of their facilities — Joseph E. Brown Middle School, named after a Confederate governor, Forrest Hill Academy, named after a Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and Henry W. Grady High School, named after a journalist who made arguments for the need for white supremacist ideology.
And again, like what others have said before me, knowing what the Confederacy stood for and the perpetuation of white supremacy through its figures shows that the majority [people of color] population of Wheeler and our school’s values are not being accurately represented through our current namesake.
It cannot be stressed enough the importance of implementing these changes into our district promptly, as this is long overdue.”
Ashleigh Ewald: “Changing our high school’s name is more than just renaming a school, but it’s about fostering a welcoming environment for students of all different backgrounds.
What message are we sending to our community by continuing to honor this individual, especially now that you understand what he symbolizes …
Our high school, which has a 74 percent minority population and was referred to as the sixth most diverse public high school in Georgia was named during the Civil Rights Movement to honor a Confederate. That should make many pause and question our current school system that refuses to acknowledge the harm this has on our student body.
Our students of color should be equally represented throughout the county and feel as if they can tell people what school they attend without saying the name of a person who was loyal to a government that supported the idea that one race is superior to another.
The school board refusing to change the title of our high school demonstrates that students of color are not valued as much as protecting a name. This is why students such as myself are beginning to lose faith in the educational system — and it’s time for young voices to speak up against the blind preservations of past ideologies.
Not changing the name of a proud, diverse high school exemplifies a lack of effort and fostering a welcoming environment, and it’s clear that our voices are not a priority.
Our name should be a reflection of our values we wish to carry into the future.”
Shweta Krishnan: “We are disappointed that in order to ensure our voices were heard, we had to prevent others from putting forth their opinions this evening. To anyone who planned to speak tonight, we apologize. Unfortunately, this was seemingly our only option.
Our group respectfully requested to have our presentation added to the monthly board meeting agenda three times and each time we were denied.
Additionally, our representative requested for our presentation to be considered three times, and again, this individual was ignored.
Most importantly, each member of our organization took the time to write an email explaining why we are passionate about the name change and what we have done to support this issue, and every email was ignored.
While it is unfortunate that our efforts to start a discussion with the board are being disregarded, we will not let this deter us from continuing to put forth our opinions and ideas for change.
The name change is an issue that we have been fighting for since last summer, and it will not be easily forgotten by August. We hope to continue this discussion in our community and show our passion for a name that will give equal representation for our entire student body. Thank you to everyone online, who took the time to listen to our presentation tonight. We hope to gain your support to help us fight for what is right.”
Click here to watch the full April school board meeting.
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.