Remarks at Town Meeting Supporting the Renaming of the Devotion School

Thank you, Mr. Moderator

Raul Fernandez, Town Meeting Member, Precinct 9

I rise to speak in favor of Warrant Article 23, and to share some historical and sociological context that may convince my fellow Town Meeting Members to favor this change.

I am a faculty member at Boston University’s School of Education, where my teaching and research are focused on equity, diversity, and inclusion in education. 

My most popular course is about justice in education and that’s what I’m here to talk about today – what is just.

It’s important to start with a simple fact: 

In our society, names matter. 

They matter to us as individuals – for instance, how others pronounce our names is important to many us. 

They matter to us as families, in that our family names often carry great historical significance. 

And names matter to us as communities – the naming of towns and streets and, yes, schools, predates the colonization of the Americas. 

For us, the naming of public buildings and memorials is an honorific – it’s a kind of monument. 

And the naming of schools, like monuments, are markers in time, etched in a present to tell future generations what we value, and perhaps what they should value too. 

But, we have to recognize that just because a name was etched on a building by those with the privilege and power to do so, that we are not bound to honor it for all of eternity.

In this nation, long ruled by a white patriarchy, historians have uplifted slaveowners because of their notable contributions, while glossing over their dreadful pasts and worse – ignoring the contributions of women, blacks, and other marginalized groups.

Take, for example, a new project of the New York Times which seeks to provide obituaries for those who were “Overlooked” during their time. 

One such person was Ida B. Wells, a nationally-known journalist who campaigned against lynching, and whose life, according to the editors at the time, did not warrant an obituary. 

We also know from the extensive research of Dr. Derek Alderman that there are more than 900 American streets named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

We also know, through his research and our own eyes that these streets appear almost exclusively in black communities. 

For all of our quoting and celebrating of Dr. King, predominantly white, relatively wealthy and allegedly progressive communities like ours have not seen fit to put his name on our public buildings, streets, or schools. 

But, let’s get back to Warrant Article 23. 

A resident of my precinct reached out to voice her opposition to the change proposed in this Article. 

She and her sisters attended the Devotion school and naturally have some affinity for the name, if not its namesake. 

But, in one of her letters, she added a missive about slavery that struck me:

“Yes it was terrible and not right, but there is no one living that was a victim of it.“

Respectfully, she could not be more wrong. 

3,950,528. 

That’s how many people were enslaved as of the 1860 census – the last taken before the end of the civil war and the passage of the 13th Amendment. 

Those millions of people, the millions who came before them, and their millions of descendants suffered bravely not just through slavery, but also through a failed reconstruction effort, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, medical experimentation, work and housing discrimination, vigilante and police shootings, and the list goes on... 

…an unbroken line of oppression that can be traced directly back to the original sin of slavery. 

Now, this Warrant Article won’t solve any of that. 

But, it will bring us one step closer to justice. 

It will put an end to our complicity in honoring a man that took ill-gotten gains as a result of the unpaid labor of another person whose freedom he stole and bequeathed it – along with that person – to our town. 

When we talk about reconsidering the contributions of slaveholders, we have to consider that all or part of what they contributed came directly as a result of enslaving people, which, for them, was equal to both free money and time. 

Time to raise a family, to build a business, to start a Revolution. All on the backs of lives stolen from others.

But, let’s be honest here. 

Edward Devotion made no extraordinary contribution to this town. He was an active member of the Town, yes, but that’s not why the school was named after him. 

It was, as far as we know, because of his financial gift. 

And it’s undeniable that that gift was made possible at least in part because he enslaved someone and forced that person to work on his behalf – giving him unearned time and money. 

And therefore, the gift itself is tainted by the stain of slavery in a way that should make it unacceptable to us. 
 
Some have said that Edward Devotion was no different than others of his time. But, we know through extensive historical research that there were many opposed, even then, to human ownership and trade – most notably the people who themselves were enslaved.

“He was a man of his time” is a tired and long-debunked argument. 

Others have said that this article is an easy out for the town. That it will make us look more progressive than we are.  

Listen, we all know that a favorable vote today will not put an end to issues of systemic racism in this town.

But this Warrant Article doesn’t seek to solve all of our problems, it seeks to address just one. 

If you think this Article doesn’t go far enough, then do what these petitioners have done and draft another Warrant Article that builds upon this one. 

Show up to committee meetings or better yet join those committees and have your voice heard. 

Tell them that you want, as I do, not just a name change, but a plaque and a corresponding education program that tells students, teachers, families and administrators exactly why we made this change. 

Speak publicly on these issues and hold our elected, appointed, and paid officials accountable for addressing racism in our Town. 

Do all of that, but also vote favorably for the Warrant Article before us.

These petitioners have given us a vehicle for our generation to say NO to the injustices of our past, and YES to a more just and inclusive future. 

Yes, to a school with a name that our kids can be proud of. 

Let’s put a long-overdue end to our Town’s complicity in this matter and vote YES on Warrant Article 23. 

Thank you.