In the past few weeks, members of the Niagara Falls City School District have been meeting with the community outreach group, Men Standing Strong, as part of a process to rename some of the schools within the district.
The schools in question would be those named for streets. A formal presentation on the plan took place on Thursday.
Hugh Leftwich, the leader of Men Standing Strong Together, said the movement has been growing for some time and is an issue with plenty of community support.
“I stand before the members of the Niagara Falls Board of Education and Superintendent Mark Laurrie, to give voice in defense of Black children, education, and the process of learning,” Leftwich said. “There are no acknowledgments in any of our schools of the accomplishments of African-Americans. Our children are left with a sense that Blacks have not provided to society. I think we all can agree that in order for a child to enjoy learning and to feel good about them and do well in school, there must be a sense of belonging.”
Leftwich said 10 pastors, their congregations, community groups and more than 886 petition names are in favor of the change in the names. Five schools in the district, 79th Street, Maple Avenue, Niagara Street, Cataract, and Hyde Park elementary schools would be the buildings considered for a name change. Suggestions Leftwich made were changing the name of Hyde Park Elementary School to Bloneva P. Bond Elementary School and making Maple Avenue Elementary School into Dr. Charles Drew Elementary School.
Other changes he recommended were renaming Niagara Street Elementary School for Theodore Williamson, a long-time Niagara Falls activists with the NAACP, Lions Club, and active member in numerous other community groups. Leftwich said 79th Street should be renamed for Mary McLeod Bethune, an education and civil rights activist. Finally, Cataract Elementary School should be renamed for the late Congressman John R. Lewis, noted for his work in the Civil Rights Movement.
After his remarks, several students spoke about people they’d like to see the schools named after, with many having made advances in science and education. Laurrie commended Leftwich on his work in forming the group and their connection to the community. He added this is something that will be moving forward in the future.
“I get, completely, the point. We need to have people to aspire to and look at to let our children know that they can too be those people. That’s why it’s been an issue with me to try and hire as many qualified Black, brown and Native people as employees as reflective of the students in front of us. ... I am proud of the fact that those numbers have increased in the last five years. It’s not there, I’m not saying it’s getting there, but this Board of Education has insisted we move that way.”
He added there will be a committee formed to study the proposals further, make a recommendation to the board, and then take it further. Laurrie felt this is going to be a great thing for the school district and there will be action on it sooner rather than later.