A group of nearly 200 South Orange-Maplewood residents — including several elected leaders from both towns — are asking the Board of Education to rename Jefferson Elementary School.
A letter submitted to the Board of Education and addressed to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ronald G. Taylor on June 19, states, “To name a school for a person is to honor them and to honor their values and lives. For the local children who attend Jefferson Elementary School to have to regard as a role model an enslaver [Thomas Jefferson] who stole the liberty, dignity, labor and knowledge of over 600 human beings is no longer acceptable. History has also confirmed his violation of an enslaved woman through four decades, ending only with his death. There is nothing about this violence and tragedy worth commemorating in the name of a school.”
The letter suggests that the school district/board of education create a community poll to name the school after a prominent Black New Jerseyan and suggests Marion Thompson Wright, “who was not only the first African American woman to receive a PhD in History but who was also an education scholar.”
The letter was authored by local school district parents Jan Kaminsky and Rhea Beck and has been co-signed by 179 local residents in including Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee, Maplewood Deputy Mayor Dean Dafis, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum, and South Orange Village Trustees Summer Jones, Walter Clarke and Karen Hartshorn Hilton.
In response to a request for comment, South Orange-Maplewood School District spokeswoman Anide Eustache told Village Green, “The Board has acknowledged receipt of the petition and is committed to discussing and reviewing the concern.”
The South Orange Board of Trustees discussed the letter at length at its June 22 meeting, as Collum sought to determine if the governing body might possibly adopt a resolution in support of the request. “I think this is something very necessary,” said Jones. Trustees Bob Zuckerman, Steve Schnall, and Donna Coallier did not express opposition to the move but discussed reviewing all building names in the towns. According to Collum, the Trustees will revisit a resolution sometime this month.
The potential renaming of Jefferson School is not on the agenda for the July 8 Maplewood Township Committee meeting. However, Township Committee member Greg Lembrich wrote to Village Green via email, “That specific issue is not on the agenda, but we are discussing the Columbus plaque/monument in Memorial Park. The Maplewood TC has authority/jurisdiction over the park, but obviously not the schools. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Jefferson issue is raised tonight, either during that discussion item and/or by a member of the public during public comment.”
The full letter to Taylor reads as follows:
Dr. Ronald Taylor, Superintendent
The School District of South Orange-Maplewood
525 Academy Street
Maplewood, New Jersey 07040
June 19, 2020
Dear Dr. Taylor,
We are a group of Maplewood and South Orange community members who have as our highest priority the education of our children in a just and equitable environment. The morals and values with which we enculture our children must include liberation from the injustices that we see every day, especially in our own district.
We write to you today to implore the School District of South Orange-Maplewood remove the name Jefferson Elementary School and instead create a community poll to name this school after a prominent Black New Jerseyan. Our own suggestion would be Marion Thompson Wright, who was not only the first African American woman to receive a PhD in History but who was also an education scholar. Her work focused on educational policy for Black students in the state of New Jersey and its segregated and unjust schools.
To name a school for a person is to honor them and to honor their values and lives. For the local children who attend Jefferson Elementary School to have to regard as a role model an enslaver who stole the liberty, dignity, labor and knowledge of over 600 human beings is no longer acceptable. History has also confirmed his violation of an enslaved woman through four decades, ending only with his death. There is nothing about this violence and tragedy worth commemorating in the name of a school.
In addition to the renaming, we request that the district develop a plaque, to be displayed prominently at the building, that is readily visible and describes the meaning and significance of the renaming at this time in history.
Let us show the children and community of South Orange-Maplewood that there is no place for the legacy of a man whose accomplishments as the third President of the United States can never outweigh his brutality and callousness toward those much more vulnerable than he. We must instead choose a name for the school that embodies the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s philosophy as a district that “celebrates diversity, human rights, and equality.” The time for this change is long overdue, but not too late.
Jan Oosting Kaminsky
Susan Lewis Bergin
Colleen Pierce Breslin
Ronni Brecher Schwartz
Jessi Gottlieb Empestan
Jennifer Greenfield Attock
Claire McNamara Traas
Siu Lo Seamon
Rachel Arturi Pruzan
Rachel Eskin Fisher
Mary Ellen Dawkins
Emily Konopinski Trunk
Michelle Lambert Wood
Ann Marie McCaughey
Kirsten Widmer Brash
Merih Danali Cantarella
Heather Weine Brochin
Rachel Gewirtz Goldman
Dana Fritz Ehrlich
Meredith Greenspan Katz
Julia Haubner Smith
Stacy Merriweather Fontil
Sharon Bauer Michaels
Tara Adams Ragone
Angie Hannam Blanco
Shawn Driemeier Portner
South Orange Village President:
South Orange Village Trustees:
Karen Hartshorn Hilton
Maplewood Town Council Members: