Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Vassal Lane Upper School, temporarily in East Cambridge, should have a new name by the time it reopens in West Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A second Cambridge public school is on track for a name change to avoid honoring a racist.

The School Committee agreed unanimously Tuesday to find a new name for the Vassal Lane Upper School before the end of this academic year, asking the district to propose how by Dec. 31.

The city’s four upper schools are all identified by the names of their street addresses, but that means the Vassal Lane Upper School by extension honors John Vassal, whose family enslaved hundreds in the Jamaican sugar industry. The family were Loyalists during the American Revolution who fled Cambridge for Boston in 1774, then moved to Canada.

There’s an early front-runner for replacing the name of John Vassal, and one in which some committee members found some satisfaction: Darby Vassal.

Darby Vassal was once enslaved by John Vassal but by the time of his death in 1782, had become an activist with religious, political and economic societies of the time, according to the History Cambridge organization. An art installation up through Nov. 6 at Christ Church, Cambridge, in Harvard Square, tells his story and reveals his tomb – under the church, with the Vassal family.

“We very easily could name the school tonight. We have lots of ideas of who we want to honor,” said vice chair Rachel Weinstein, who wrote the motion for the renaming. “But we want this to be an inclusive process.”

Precedent from 2002

This will not be the first time a Cambridge school is renamed to avoid the stain of racism. The Maria L. Baldwin School was known as the Agassiz School from 1874 until 2002, but that name was associated with Louis Agassiz, a Harvard scholar who promoted eugenics. (The school is in the Baldwin neighborhood, which was renamed from the Agassiz neighborhood in August 2021.)

The call to change the name of the Vassal Lane Upper School came from students – and it was students who led the work for the Baldwin name changes, noted Carolyn Turk, the district’s deputy superintendent. “In each process, there were students who did a tremendous amount of research,” yet in each case they knew “this was something the community needed to be a part of,” Turk said.

Still, superintendent Victoria Greer said those who attend the school or did attend it – which includes children of Weinstein and fellow committee member David Weinstein (no relation) – should “have a strong voice” in deciding the change. Greer said her process would turn first to Vassall students, staff and faculty; principal Daniel Coplon-Newfield has begun work, she said.

Black, indigenous and other

Rachel Weinstein’s motion asks that the name change honors “a Black Cantabrigian or multiple local Black leaders who contributed to the advancement of equitable education, civil rights” and the community, leading member José Luis Rojas Villarreal to ask if the order couldn’t be broadened to include consideration of indigenous peoples such as those of local interest highlighted by the work of History Cambridge.

There was resistance from Weinstein and others. “For this particular school, it seems most appropriate to face the history of enslavement right here in Cambridge and speak to it and do some healing. It would feel like a slight not not to acknowledge the black history tied to the Vassal name,” she said. “You make a good point about in general about recognizing the diversity of our student population and ensuring that all students see themselves reflected … we have three other upper schools that are also named after the streets they’re located on.”

There should at least be a stated intent to consider indigenous peoples and other minorities in the renamings, Rojas said – drawing a suggestion from Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui to submit a motion calling for that instead of amending the Tuesday order.

Siddiqui agreed it made sense to overwrite the Vassal Lane name with a name that honored black residents, and student committee member Adelina Escamilla-Salomon agreed there was “extreme value in renaming the school to honor a black person” where young people would be going and learning its history. “I do see the value in what member Rojas was saying.”

A change for the street named after John Vassal is likely to be proposed as well. A City Council policy order adopted in June 2019 called for review of “monuments, memorials and markers” throughout the city to see which honored people “linked to the slave trade or engaged in other similarly shameful acts” and due for a rethinking.

“There are a lot of things that need be renamed,” Siddiqui said, promising recommendations in the next one to three years.

Long overdue

The Vassal Lane Upper Schools – in fact, all of the upper schools – are long overdue for it. They were created as part of an “Innovation Agenda” approved by the committee in March 2011, and then-superintendent Jeff Young told city councillors at a June 2012 budget hearing that the renaming process for each would begin that fall, possibly through contests.

“The street names were meant to be placeholders,” Young said. “We looked at it as the one element of the Innovation Agenda that would not be controversial.”

Two of the four schools have even been through elaborate and expensive campus reconstructions without getting new names. Vassal Lane’s campus in West Cambridge, shared with the Tobin Montessori School, is undergoing a $299 million renovation now, during which the upper school has relocated to 158 Spring St., East Cambridge. The schools’ expected reopening is in the fall of 2025.