I was in third grade when I learned who Jefferson Davis was. My teacher was giving a lesson about the Civil War and told us that he was the President of the Confederacy at the time.
I raised my hand.
“Wait, is this the same one our school is named after?”
“Yes, let’s move on.”
“But…he’s a bad guy. He was on the bad side…so why would you name a school after him?”
“We can talk about it later, David.”
“He wanted to keep slaves!”
I returned to Jefferson Davis elementary this summer during a trip back to Jackson, but Jefferson Davis elementary isn’t Jefferson Davis elementary anymore. It’s now the Barack H. Obama Magnet School. In the heart of Jackson, Mississippi. I walked up to the front of the school, looked up, saw the sign for Obama’s name. And I fought back tears.
Learning that my elementary school in the middle of was named after a member of the Confederacy changed the world around me. I stopped seeing buildings and statues as happenstance unions of metal and brick. Instead, I saw these monuments were purposefully created banners of white supremacy. These buildings and statues were about hatred.
But the north won, I said to myself after my teacher told me about Jefferson Davis. I felt like I’d repeat that sentence for years, in disbelief at racism’s perseverance. What’s worse is that I have nothing but fond memories of Davis. I loved that school that encouraged me to be creative, expressive and myself. I love the teachers I had there and the connections I made. Which I why I felt for everyone who worked there, who educated Black boys and girls in a building named for someone who never wanted us to ever even learn to read. I felt for my parents who had to look at that hateful name every time they dropped me off at the place they knew was the best for my education. We all felt trapped under a name that was only put there for white supremacy.
So how does all of that change? Imagination and conviction. Imagination to believe that things can change and conviction to change it. The Davis school board made the decision last year, a few weeks after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville. And a few weeks ago, a Jackson couple, Talmieca and Charles Brice worked together to put the icing on the cake: a mural of Obama that scaled an entire wall on one side of the building.
I could relish in how Jefferson Davis is rolling over in his grave at all of this. I could enjoy the tears of racists in Jackson who are fuming over a Black man replacing one of their historical pillars of anti-Blackness. But this isn’t really about white people.
This story is about the persistence of Blackness in the city I love. In the middle of a state with a cruel history of wanting to see Black people as nothing more than ornaments at the ends of knotted ropes. It’s about a city constantly sabotaged by a Republican state power that wants to debilitate the Black power within the city limits. A Jackson full of people working at loving one another despite the cut-off resources and potholes – metaphorical and literal – that batter every corner within the city limits. A city that has rallied behind a young, radical Black mayor. A city that can be a model for what Black mobilization can look like. A town with a damn citywide spades tournament this weekend.
And a city that replaced a symbol of white supremacy with a beacon of Black excellence.
I stood in front of Obama Magnet and thought about those first few days after I learned about who Jefferson Davis was. I clapped my hands together and thought about the fact that there won’t be any more kids walking the hallways thinking about the spirit of hatred baring down on them. Black kids need places like Obama Magnet. And seeing the new name, new mural and the potential for the school’s future filled me with a pride I’d become accustomed to feeling most days when I’m back home in Jackson.
Jefferson Davis Magnet is dead. Long live Barack Obama Magnet School.
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