School Board receives hundreds of emails requesting school name change

Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Clarke has requested that the School Board of Alachua County discuss the name change of J.J. Finley Elementary School at the July 21st meeting.

In a letter responding to the name change request by Gator NAACP Members, Clarke stated, “I want you to know that I support changing the school’s name and have reached out to our School Board members.

“Principal Kelly Jones has already reached out to her families and staff about the potential for a name change, which she also supports,” Clarke wrote. “Of course, we want the school community, particularly the students, to be part of this process.”

If the SBAC supports the change the school name will become Josiah T. Walls Elementary School. Walls was born into slavery in Virginia and was the first African American to be elected to U.S. Congress from Florida. He was a member of the Florida House of Representatives from Alachua from 1868-1869 and served three terms in U.S. Congress from 1871-1876. He also served four terms in the U.S. Senate and during the Civil War, he was a Corporal in U.S, Colored Troops unit in 1863.

Josiah T. Walls

According to the letter sent for the name request, “J.J. Finley was an architect of lynching in northern Florida as a general in the Confederate States Army and a Circuit Court judge before and after the Civil War. In 1930, a Gainesville elementary school was named in his honor, to memorialize him and his beliefs. I email to demand that the School Board of Alachua County retire this racist confederate memorial in Gainesville by removing Finley’s name from this school. This school is one example of the historic and ongoing normalization of racism in Gainesville.”

City of Gainesville Commissioner Gail Johnson supports the mission and has been active also in procuring a naming for the park adjacent to the school.

“This clearly is important to the community and something I am in full agreement with,” Johnson posted on social media. “I appreciate all of you reaching out and letting us know what you want us to do as your elected officials. I hear you! I support and agree with all of the demands in the letter.”

Johnson stated that the City cannot change the name of the school, only a school board can. 

“However, in the case of the park that is attached to the school, the naming of park will go through a public process and advisory board to be named. This direction was given months ago, and then Covid-19 happened.

“The city didn’t name the park,” Johnson stated. “There is a blank space in the ordinance for the name of the park. There were signs put up with the name JJ Finley Park. Those signs were a mistake, and as soon as the Commission was notified, the signs were taken down.”

School Board Member Leanette McNealy responded to Johnson’s question of where the School Board members stand. “Commissioner Johnson I received the same amount of emails that you have received, maybe more because the notification sound on my phone is loud. I’m very happy and content to have received the number of parents, neighbors, and community that have requested a changing of the name of J.J. Finley. I stand ready to assist with the process of changing the name. Thank you Commissioner for working towards renaming the J.J. Finley Park.”

Former elected official and community activist Rodney J. Long replied to Johnson stating, “The Martin Luther King, Jr., Commission of Florida stands in solidarity with the renaming of JJ Finely in honor of Josiah T. Walls.”

The letter sent to the SBAC members also makes the following requests:

-Immediately (today) remove J.J. Finley’s name from all signs, social media references, and the school website

-Teach children at this elementary school about U.S. Congressman Josiah T. Walls, from Gainesville. Walls was the third African American to serve in Congress. During Walls’ initial term, Walls was removed from office and replaced in Congress by Finley

-Publish the true history of Walls and Finley on the school’s web site, including a full description of the 90-year honor and memorial to Finley and his beliefs

-Acknowledge the role that the J.J. Finley faculty, Alachua County Public Schools, and the SBAC played in failing to properly educate children in Alachua County about Walls

-Use all J.J. Finley PTA monies to fund a playground at a poorly funded elementary school, as a reparation for the curiously funded and named J.J. Finley Park, built in 2019 by the Gainesville City Commission on Alachua County Public School property at the school

-Donate all football parking funds to underfunded schools, in perpetuity, from the football parking concession at this elementary school, located a few blocks from the University of Florida football stadium

-Apologize for several decades of honor and memorial to Jesse Finley, and the associated normalization of racism

-Rename the school for Josiah T. Walls”

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