Monday, July 22, 2024

The Tobin Montessori School, temporarily on Broadway in Mid-Cambridge, could be renamed to honor longtime school district leader Carolyn Turk. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A move to rename the Vassal Lane Upper School to avoid honoring a 1700s family of enslavers is delayed and won’t be heard at Tuesday’s meeting of the School Committee.

The idea arrived at after a yearlong process was to call it the Darby Turk Upper School, but the motion ran into resistance from two directions that complicated both parts of the name.

To avoid using the same of the enslavers, Vassal, committee members seek to instead honor one of the enslaved in their home – whose last name was the same. That person’s first name, Darby, would have been joined with an honor for longtime school district leader Carolyn Turk. She retired in October from her 21-year role as deputy superintendent.

The plan now is to separate the honors, committee vice chair Rachel Weinstein said late Monday, with two motions probably coming at a Dec. 19 meeting after there’s time for feedback on the ideas.

The upper school could be renamed the Darby Vassall Upper School, and Turk would be honored at the Tobin Montessori, where she attended, taught and led as assistant principal.

“With such little notice, it wouldn’t be right to do that tomorrow night,” Weinstein said in a letter Monday. She expanded on her thoughts later in a phone call.

No “person named Darby Turk’

While there was distaste for using the name of enslavers on a building, including from educators, descendants of the people who’d been enslaved by the Vassal family were among those against using only the first name of their ancestor when the family itself had chosen to keep the Vassal name, changing it to Vassall. Darby Vassall (1769-1861) famously told Gen. George Washington as a 6-year-old that he expected to be paid for his work, and later became a civil rights activist and advocate for universal education.

“Upon learning more of what his descendants said – that they actually changed the spelling from one L to two Ls and there was a conscious choice to keep the name – that was persuasive,” Weinstein said.

The initial choice of “Darby Turk” for the school had run into other problems. “There’s confusion about that there wasn’t a person named Darby Turk,” Weinstein said. “We already were going to shift to the ‘Darby and Turk’ school.”

“Since we drafted our motion, I would say we heard from a group that was very enthusiastic about it and then from a group that is very opposed,” Weinstein said. “The community was pretty split,” and the opponents, who included the descendants of Darby Vassall, were well organized in making their opposition known – including in two to three dozen recent emails.

The motion was by Weinstein; Ayesha Wilson, who moves in January to the City Council; and Fred Fantini, who is retiring at the end of the term after serving for 40 years.

Changes expected long ago

The committee agreed in October 2022 to find a new name for the Vassal Lane Upper School, expecting originally to have one by the end of that academic year. An extension was granted to February, when the process was rebooted.

The city’s four upper schools are all identified by the names of their street addresses, and all were intended to be renamed when they were created as part of an “Innovation Agenda” approved by the committee in March 2011. 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.

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, and the Tobin Montessori School to 359 Broadway, Mid-Cambridge. The schools’ expected reopening is in the fall of 2025.

The committee meets at 6 p.m. in the Dr. Henrietta S. Attles Meeting Room at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, 459 Broadway, Mid-Cambridge. The meeting with be televised and watchable by Zoom videoconferencing.