Dozens of people encouraged the School Board of Alachua County to approve the name change of J.J. Finley Elementary including a second grader from Glen Springs Elementary School.
The student named Elaida wrote a note in pencil on lined paper that read, “Please change the name of your school. Here are a few options: Ruby Briges (Bridges), Friendship, Raye Montague.”
The student also included a colorful drawing of a woman in her message. Bridges is known as the first African American student to integrate and elementary school in the South and Montague was the first female program manager of ships in the U.S. Navy.
The SBAC heard from parents, teachers, community leaders, PTA representative, former J.J. Finley students and attorneys during the June 16th meeting.
The effort proposes to remove J.J. Finley’s name because of his history as a Confederate soldier and ties to lynching efforts.
Mary Benedict, president of Alachua County PTA, said the name change is “Long overdue” and “out of line with the character and values of our community.”
Local photographer and springs advocate John Moran wrote, “Now would be a good time to say goodbye and good riddance,” to the name.
Gainesville Attorney Lakesha Thomas who is President of the Josiah T. Walls Bar Association read a statement of support and encourage the name be changed to Josiah T. Walls Elementary.
“Walls was a liberated slave who served in Congress and was at one time a teacher in Archer,” she said.
Walls also served on education committees and created a bill establishing free public education for all. Thomas said naming the school after him would be “Mr. Wall’s dream realized in the most compassionate way.”
Several JJ Finley Alumni spoke about their experience as students at the school they described as “inclusive and welcoming” and urged the school be named after someone who has had a positive impact on the community.
One gentleman caller disagreed with the renaming effort and called it “hoopla,” and added that students shouldn’t be concerned with who the school is named after, adding, “If you want to forget history, then you might as well forget Pearl Harbor.”
School Board Member Robert Hyatt apologized for not acting on the issue of removing names honoring historical figures with ties to negative actions in history. “I take responsibility for not bringing this in public,” he said. “I’m glad this is happening.
“I don’t recall any school board member ever advocating for this change and it’s again, I take responsibility,” he said for not acting on the change. An effort to rename schools was initiated by activist Faye Williams in 2017, which was mentioned by several commenters.
Hyatt then read a letter from the great great granddaughter of J.J. Finley Patty Sullivan. “I’m supporting the name change of J.J. Finley Elementary School. I would hope that the decision to change the name is done quickly so the School Board and community can move forward to make our schools in Alachua County better for all students.”
“Hearing the emails read and hearing the callers and hearing the folks from the board room, to me this was a very inspiring evening and I thank everybody for participating and I appreciate all of the remarks,” Hyatt said.
School Board Member Tina Certain said she was happy about the public input. She said that after attending a February 7th Truth and Reconciliation event, Certain said she mentioned the renaming of J.J. Finley school and implored that the Board look at the renaming process.
“I’d be remiss if I did not acknowledge Ms. Faye Williams,” she said about prior efforts to rename the school. “It seems that when one demographic makes a request of something, it comes with a quickness.
Certain said that members of the African America community often feel ignored when they come to the school board. “When I was a citizen I did not feel heard,” she said.
I don’t want to give the impression that when one group speaks, we act with urgency and then when someone else speaks it can go down the line and it’s something we’ll take up in the future.”
A unanimous vote by the Board approved the name change.
A committee will be formed to suggest names for the school, and those recommendations will be presented to the SBAC for consideration at its August 4th meeting. Individual community members may also submit their recommendation for a new name by submitting an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by July 17, 2020.