The Madison Metropolitan School District is set to consider renaming James Madison Memorial High School following a proposal last fall from alumna Mya Berry.
Berry first sought to change the school’s name as a senior in 2017, when a Change.org petition gathered 1,758 signatures supporting the idea. Madison, the fourth President of the United States, was also a slave owner, which is a key consideration in Berry’s proposal.
Now a UW-Madison student, Berry wrote in an email to the Cap Times she has continued to advocate for the change since 2017, including meeting with various School Board members over the years to discuss the idea. She suggested in the official proposal that the school should be named in honor of Vel Phillips.
"To have a high school named after Vel Phillips would feel like a step in the right direction for the community," Berry wrote in the email to the Cap Times. "Instead of honoring historical figures that oppressed and enslaved Black Americans, we will have a school respecting the life of a woman who worked toward bridging racial gaps right here in Wisconsin.
"I also think it is significant to credit a Wisconsin leader as the new name, to demonstrate the possibilities that exist to Black and Brown students specifically."
School Board president Gloria Reyes will announce the proposal at Monday’s board meeting, according to the agenda, beginning a 30-day window for others to offer suggestions for a new name and the public to comment. Under board policy, the board will recommend names to serve on a 12-person ad hoc renaming committee that will make a recommendation to the board on a new name.
The public can comment on the proposal through the district’s website, and the renaming committee will have to hold a public hearing on the proposed names before they bring a recommendation to the board.
If successful, the renaming effort would be the third in recent years that would honor a Black Wisconsin woman. The former Glendale Elementary School is now named after Virginia Henderson, while an effort to honor Milele Chikasa Anana was successful earlier this year, as her name will soon grace Falk Elementary School.
Changing the name of a high school brings different considerations, given the branding, increased signage and athletics. Berry wrote that some board members cited concerns about the potential costs in her conversations with them in recent years.
Phillips’ name already is on a University of Wisconsin-Madison residence hall, and a proposal to add a statue of her outside of the Capitol building is in the works. Her list of accomplishments includes being the first Black woman to graduate from UW-Madison’s law school, the first Black judge in Wisconsin and the first Black woman elected to a state office as the secretary of state.
“Phillips was an active advocate for social justice,” Berry wrote. “Vel Phillips not only gave directly back to the community through her activism, but was also a part of shaping it.”
Berry met Phillips in 2014, she wrote in her email, after her brother worked on a documentary highlighting Black historical figures.
"Her life inspires me, and I felt compelled to share her story and honor the obstacles she had to overcome to achieve her goals," Berry wrote.
Berry’s criticism of the current name is largely based on Madison’s slave ownership and “the reflective history of Wisconsin’s disturbingly normalized relationship to the ideology of slavery.”
“Madison was a person that benefited off of the exploitation of Black bodies, and those who embarked in such acts of racism should have no influence in today’s culture,” Berry wrote. “Expecting Black students to attend a school named after a slave owner is anti-Black.”
She cites the academic disparities for Black students compared to their white peers in her recent proposal and the 2017 petition.
“Being in an institution that perpetuates an anti-Black culture is not conducive for the success of Black students, and therefore hinders the school overall,” she wrote recently. “That is why actions such as ending contracts with the police in MMSD schools, and holding faculty accountable for their discrimination are small steps towards creating an environment where they can thrive.”
In 2017, the Cap Times reported that Berry’s effort was connected to the social justice class she was taking at the time.