OPINION: Jefferson Descendant Supports Renaming Jefferson School

by Sally Unsworth
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The following statement was submitted to the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education during public comments at the August 16, 2021 meeting. The Board later voted to begin a process to rename Jefferson School.

My name is Sally Unsworth and I have two children in the district — one who will be beginning 3rd grade at Jefferson Elementary next month. I am addressing you tonight to support the effort to rename his elementary school. As a progressive community, this is yet another opportunity for all of us to practice the “Yes, AND” approach to improving our schools.

For example, are we committed to an anti-racist educational experience for our children?

Yes, AND, we will address this through implementing the Amistad curriculum and much more AND give our students the opportunity to explore a better role model for their school‘s name that aligns with the values of today.

Another question, is this the right time to consider this change?

Yes, AND, we have the opportunity to allow our children to lead and learn at a pivotal moment in this history of our nation. With a student body that represents a broad cross-section of youth, we know that to ignore history or to re-write it to wash over uncomfortable truths is the wrong approach to education. THEY lead, we ALL learn, and the community process to select a more appropriate name benefits us ALL.

As a child, one of the first things I learned about my father’s side of the family was that we were direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson. It wasn’t until I attended college and met another direct descendent that I had a conversation about Jefferson’s role in slavery in America. He was a deeply flawed historical figure and, while no part of his contribution to the founding of the United States should be erased, no part of the entire truth of who he was, how he lived, and who he harmed should be ignored.

Let us use this opportunity to reflect and correct and give our students a voice in celebrating a more appropriate name for their school.

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