What’s in a school name? “Jesse Owens,” the name attached to a Chicago public school in West Pullman, matters, community advocates argue.
Jesse Owens Community Academy has given hope and inspiration to low-income South Side students, said Owens’ daughter, Marlene Owens Rankin. That’s why her family is fighting a name change for the elementary school at 12540 S. State St.
In a few days, Chicago students will return to school in the wake of what may be the largest mass school closings in America. Many schools will also start the new year with drastically reduced budgets. One school is considering asking parents for toilet paper donations.
The Owens Community Academy has survived, but its name will change this fall, to Gompers South, erasing a tie to a historic role model for children, Rankin argues.
Owens first achieved international fame for winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Germans viewed the games as a referendum on whether “Aryan” people were the dominant race. Owens’ victories were seen internationally as an argument against that idea, even at a time of ongoing segregation at home. The track-and-field star was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and became a motivational speaker for communities across the country.
Owens died at 66, but his surviving children are leading the opposition to the name change. Today, Chicago’s African-American children need inspiration amid endemic violence and decreased economic opportunity. An elementary school named after a black man like Owens is no small thing, argues Rankin the youngest of his three daughters, who all live in Chicago.
Owens moved to the city after he finished his Olympic career and worked with less advantaged youth through the Chicago Boys’ Club.
On Aug. 14, the siblings sent a letter to David Vitale, president of the Chicago Board of Education, along with copies to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale and Ald. Leslie Hairston of the 5th Ward.
“This year marks the 100th Anniversary of our father’s birth on September 12,” the Owens sisters wrote. “We can’t think of a better gift to Chicago and its schoolchildren than that of restoring Jesse Owens’ name to this CPS school.”
The Chicago Tribune reported Thursday that a sign near the building currently reads “Gompers South.”
The school’s name was changed to Gompers South–a campus of the Gompers Fine Arts Option Elementary School, according to CPS spokeswoman Molly Poppe.
Such recommendations usually come from the local school council, according to a written statement by Becky Carroll, another CPS spokeswoman.
Beale, whose ward houses the school, told the Reporter he supports restoring the Owens name.
“It will be good for African-American history in our community,” said Beale. He said he has already reached out to Harrison Peters, chief of schools at Chicago Public Schools, to ask the school’s local council to restore the Owens name.
Vitale and Emanuel did not respond to several requests for comment.
Rankin said she will keep pushing for Jesse Owens Community Academy. More than 50 civic leaders, activists and local residents signed a letter to the editor, and sent it to several local newspapers, requesting that the name be reinstated.
Rankin said she and her sisters are recruiting a growing list of supporters as they spread the word.
“He is a significant person in history, and an excellent role model,” she added. “As the son of a sharecropper whose father had been slave, it shows [students] they don’t have to come from a wealthy background to become somebody.”
“Kids of color deserve that kind of inspiration,” she said.