Why Thomas Jefferson's name was removed from suburban school building

Waukegan school takes civil rights icon's name. Will others change, too?

  • There are no plans to change the name of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Hoffman Estates.

    There are no plans to change the name of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Hoffman Estates. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • The recently renamed John R. Lewis Middle School in Waukegan honors a civil rights icon and lawmaker who died in 2020.

    The recently renamed John R. Lewis Middle School in Waukegan honors a civil rights icon and lawmaker who died in 2020. courtesy of Waukegan School District 60

  • John Lewis

    John Lewis

  • Brad Schneider

    Brad Schneider

 
 
Updated 8/7/2021 5:06 PM

Students at two North suburban middle schools will find new names on their buildings when the 2021-22 term begins Thursday.

Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Waukegan has been renamed to honor John Lewis, the late civil rights icon and longtime congressman. The school board changed the name on the basis that Jefferson -- the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation's third president -- owned slaves.

 

The district also renamed Daniel Webster Middle School after civil rights activist Edith M. Smith because Webster, a 19th-century lawmaker, backed legislation mandating the return of fugitive slaves even though he opposed slavery.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider of Deerfield was among the featured speakers at a ceremony at John R. Lewis Middle School Saturday.

Although pleased to see a school in the 10th Congressional District named after Lewis, who died last year, Schneider wouldn't say ifsw he believes other schools and landmarks honoring Americans who were slave owners or supported slavery -- Jefferson in particular -- should be renamed.

"My focus is on who we are as a nation today and what we aspire to be ... and the ideal of a more perfect union," Schneider told the Daily Herald.

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Still, Schneider noted Americans can't accomplish that idea without knowing our nation's history.

"The only way we can stay on that journey is to understand from where we come," he said. "We always have to study the full breadth of American history and understand the full context of our history."

Schneider was more forthcoming when talking about the posthumous honor for Lewis, whose fight for equal rights included 33 years representing Georgia's 5th District in Congress.

Schneider called serving alongside Lewis among his greatest honors.

"To be in his presence in Congress was remarkable," Schneider said. "(He was) an American icon, a true American hero."

The Waukegan School District 60 board voted in April to rename the two schools effective last month.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Two other suburban schools are named for Jefferson, and it appears that won't change anytime soon.

Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Hoffman Estates is part of Palatine Township Elementary School District 15. District officials aren't discussing renaming the school, a spokeswoman said.

There's a Thomas Jefferson Junior High School in Woodridge, too.

Woodridge School District 68 Superintendent Patrick Broncato said he's unaware of any controversy about the name. "We have not had any discussions about changing the name, and I am not aware of any discussions or efforts to change the school's name," Broncato said.

The name of a school in downstate Peoria was changed earlier this year to honor a civil rights activist instead of Jefferson.

Elsewhere, Thomas Jefferson Woods in River Forest is part of the Cook County Forest Preserve District system. Officials have created a special panel to evaluate all location names and discuss whether any could be considered inappropriate or offensive.

The initiative wasn't launched in response to any specific site name, a spokesman said.

• Daily Herald staff writer Lauren Rohr contributed to this report.

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