By Mark Eaton
The massive structure reaching skyward at the Minnie Howard Campus of Alexandria City High School is convincing evidence of the new school’s substantial (360,000 square feet) size. There will be nothing “mini” about the new building which is scheduled to open in about a year.
Alexandria will still have one high school, but it will also have a new high school building. A common question in the city is, “Well, who was Minnie Howard?”
Here is a brief biographical sketch of Minnie Howard from the city’s website: “Minnie Stansbury Howard wasn’t a teacher but she devoted much of her life to the welfare of children. Minnie Stansbury was born in 1869 and lost her parents before she was 15. She lived with her brother and his family before marrying Thomas Clifton Howard. As she raised seven children to adulthood, Minnie Howard founded a children’s home and served as Alexandria’s first juvenile probation officer. She was founder of the City’s first PTA, president of the Alexandria playground association and helped establish Alexandria’s first public playground at the Washington Street school. She used to sell cherries during George Washington’s birthday to help raise money for playgrounds. Like Cora Kelly, Minnie Howard’s namesake school opened just a few years after her death in 1950.
Howard was an admirable person. The cur- rent building that bears her name has served Alexandria as an elementary school, a school administration building and as ACPS’ ninth grade center. The question, which is not asked to denigrate Howard or her legacy, is whether the new building should continue to be named for someone who passed away more than 70 years ago and with whom many Alexandrians are unfamiliar.
The question is about more than simple re- branding. The educational plan for the joint operation of the new building and the King Street Campus involves major changes to how high school education will be delivered in Alexandria. The ACPS website says that the new building will include, “new and expanded CTE [Career and Technical Education], science, and art resources around exciting new dining and extended learning spaces, as well as interdisciplinary ‘neighborhoods’ featuring flexible classrooms, and teacher collaboration areas organized around extended learning spaces.”
These new approaches suggest that a new name may also be appropriate.
The naming and renaming of public buildings, particularly schools, has become a difficult issue. Virginia high schools formerly named for prominent Confederates are now named for values, such as Freedom and Justice high schools, or bear modified names – Arlington’s Washington-Lee High School has become Washington-Liberty High School.
The impetus to change the name of T.C. Williams High School, named in 1965 when it opened, to Alexandria City High School came from students and community members who rejected the shameful legacy of long-time Superintendent Thomas Chambliss Williams. Reporting in the Alexandria Times and elsewhere revealed much that was negative about Williams’ attitude about race. For example, he fired Blois Hundley, an African-American cafeteria worker, for joining a federal civil rights lawsuit.
The decision to change the name of the Minnie Howard Campus is a first step. If the name is to be changed, what should it be changed to? If ACHS has a King Street Campus, should it also have a Braddock Road Campus? This is uncontroversial, like “Alexandria City High School,” but also uninspiring. It should be possible to find a name that reflects ACPS’ high aspirations for the new campus.
There may be no consensus to rename the Minnie Howard Campus. If none exists, then as part of the opening of the new building there should be a community education effort to familiarize Alexandrians, particularly students, with Howard and to rekindle appreciation for her legacy.
It would be a missed opportunity to open Alexandria’s long-awaited and newest high school building without considering whether a name change is appropriate or renewing the community’s understanding of Howard’s contributions.