Grady’s and Wells’s descendants excluded from Grady’s name change


Elena Hubert

The Atlanta Board of Education voted to finalize Midtown High School as the new name for Henry W. Grady High School.

Ava Smith and Aran Sonnad-Joshi

The process of  Grady’s prospective name change has  focused primarily on the interests of various stakeholder groups, including students, staff and community members.

However, as students are scheduled to cast votes starting today on a name in a school board-sponsored survey, one stakeholder group has been overlooked. The descendants of Henry W. Grady, the school’s current namesake and of Ida B. Wells, whose name is one of three finalists, which also include Midtown and Piedmont, have not been contacted by Atlanta Public Schools.

Henry W. Grady III, the great-great-grandson of Henry W. Grady, supports the name change but believes Grady’s legacy has been misrepresented in the present day. During the summer of 2020 police brutality protests in Atlanta, the Grady family gravesite at Westview Cemetery was vandalized. Grady III believes his ancestor is unfairly judged through a 21st-century perspective.

“Here we are in 2020, trying to apply a lens of today on the actions, activities and character of someone who lived 135 years ago,” Grady III said. “All he wanted to do was to help rebuild the South and rebuild Atlanta. He wanted to bring things to the city that lifted everybody: education, entertainment, health care.”

Although the renaming committee commissioned by the school board chair decided in the summer to recommend a name that did not contain Henry W. Grady to the full school board, Grady III believes his ancestor’s legacy should not be removed from the building. Instead, he advocates for a hybrid name that combines Grady with another name.

“I would have liked to have seen [a hybrid name] if the name was going to be amended,” Grady III said. “Then it would have been changed to reflect what the history has been at the school and where the future of the school is headed.”

The official recommendation of the Grady Renaming Committee, which was presented to the board on Nov. 2, was Ida B. Wells. Wells was an activist, journalist and co-founder of the NAACP.  However, after pushback from the community about the committee’s recommendation process, the board, during the Nov. 2 meeting, decided to put the name up to a student vote today. Ida B. Wells is one of three names that are on the students’ ballot.  

Tiana Ferrell is the great-great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells. Ferrell has lived in Atlanta since she was a child and worked to revive the “Memphis Free Speech,” the newspaper Wells ran, as the “Atlanta Free Speech.”

Like many Grady students and alumni, Ferrell believes a name change for the school is long overdue. 

“I don’t think that, in the present day, any high school [or] institution should be named after any person who oppressed certain individuals and people,” Ferrell said. “I definitely think it is time for a change for a lot of buildings and statues around the city of Atlanta and the entire state of Georgia.”

However, Ferrell worries that the name Ida B. Wells is reactionary. 

“The reason that I am apprehensive about Grady being renamed after Ida B. Wells is because of the intention; all that glitters is not gold,” Ferrell said. “As her descendant, it is my job to preserve and protect her legacy; so, therefore, I question the intention of renaming the school after Wells. Also, Mr. Grady oppressed people who look like me, and people who Ida B. Wells fought for, and I ask myself, ‘would Ida B. Wells want her name on this institution that was named after someone who oppressed our people?’”

The announcement of the original recommendation of Ida B. Wells was the first time Ferrell heard that the school could be renamed after her ancestor. 

“That … was a knee-jerk reaction,” Ferrell said. “I was thinking like, you don’t even want to hear the thoughts of her family or how her family feels about this.”

Like those of Wells, Grady’s descendants were not consulted on the potential name change. The only outreach that Grady III received was an invitation to be on a panel about the name change which was organized by a 2020 graduate of Grady. Grady III believes that the school board should be open to hearing their thoughts.

“Our efforts to provide input … were not welcomed,” Grady III said. “It’s an opinion that I would have hoped they would have been willing to listen to. Maybe they felt like they didn’t need my opinion, or that my opinion wasn’t valid, or that they’d already made up their mind.” 

Grady III and Ferrell also question the option of Ida B. Wells because, while, according to Ferrell, she visited Atlanta a few times, she doesn’t have a direct connection to the city. Ferrell said she would like to see the school named after someone who “resonates with Atlanta” such as civil rights activist Ralph David Abernathy. 

Ferrell and Grady III are concerned about the long-term implications of renaming the high school after Ida B. Wells. Ferrell is apprehensive that Wells’s name will be seen as a simple replacement for the name of Henry W. Grady. 

“Twenty years down the line, what conversation are we having? And what will Ida B. Wells’s legacy be on this institution if we’re just putting her name on there for the sake of removing Grady’s name,” Ferrell said. 

Grady III is worried that naming the school after a person will cause a similar problem down the line. 

“Who knows, maybe in another 50, or 75 or 100 years, maybe that [name] becomes controversial,” Grady III said. “To prevent that, you name it something different.”   

The other two names on the shortlist for the student vote were the place-based names  Midtown  and Piedmont.  Ferrell and Grady III agree that Midtown would be a good name for its neutrality. 

“I am okay, with a neutral, Midtown High School, for example, because it takes off that stigma of the current name that’s on there,” Ferrell said.  “It takes up the oppression and takes off the hurt and the pain that some of our ancestors and some of the Atlantans that are still living have to endure. So, I am okay with it being named after a place.” 

Many, including Grady III, argue that only including students in today’s name vote excludes the opinions of other stakeholders, who will not be allowed to participate. 

“I think all constituents who have an interest ought to be heard,” Grady III said. “That constituent could be someone in the community that just lives nearby or someone who attended the school and maybe now is an alumnus, or maybe someone at Inman [replaced this year by Howard Middle School], who’s about to attend the school. I think they should all be heard.”

Ferrell agrees with the board’s decision and believes that the students should have the final say in the recommendation. She believes the vote will empower student voices.

“I think that they [the board members] are very innovative,” Ferrell said. “I think that it’s very [appropriate] to trust the students and allow them to decide their future, which I think is great. I think that it’s a great thing that students are able to make such a sound decision for themselves and their future. I think it’s beautiful, actually.”