Ellen Garrison. Image via The Robbins House

Middle School naming sparks broader conversation about race 

By Kelly Walters  — Correspondent   

Longtime Concord resident Edward Hurley-Wales said a child hurled a racial slur at his daughter on the Emerson playground when she was just five years old.   

“Unfortunately, that’s a very typical story for any person of color,” said Hurley-Wales, who is African American.   

“We all have these experiences throughout our life, particularly when we are in majority-white culture settings,” he said. “Though my daughter had many good experiences in Concord growing up here, her racial identity was a complicated piece of her childhood here.”   

Hurley-Wales is one of several parents of color who have chosen to speak publicly about their experiences living and raising children in Concord after learning about the effort to name the town’s new middle school for civil rights activist and educator of color Ellen Garrison.   

He and Michael Williams sat down with The Concord Bridge to describe what seeing Garrison’s name on the new school would mean to them.   

“We’re both here because we remember what our kids went through,” said Williams, who is Black and has lived in and raised his family in Concord for the past 32 years.  

“We’re seeing, two generations later, the same thing happen,” he said, referencing a report of racially charged incidents at the middle school last year.   

“We have this gift to do something that’s inspirational and aspirational” by naming the school for Garrison, Williams said.   

Edward Hurley-Wales, left, and Michael Williams. Photo by Kelly Walters

A broader discussion   

Garrison’s name has been circulating in town for many months. And while the School Committee voted in February to go with “Concord Middle School,” calls to name the new building for the Civil War-era racial justice advocate have persisted. A warrant article urging the change — though not enacting it outright — will face Town Meeting voters later this month.   

The hotly contested issue appears to have sparked a broader conversation about race and representation in a town where, according to the most recent available U.S. Census data, 82.3% of residents identify as white.   

Rose Cratsley, a member of the town’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission, called the School Committee’s February naming decision “disheartening.”    

“To our kids in particular, it is just another in a growing list of times they’ve felt the school, the community at large, and the town as a whole have failed to act to make things better for them and their friends,” said Cratsley, who is South Asian.   

Cratsley said naming the school for Garrison “would be a wonderful step towards being seen and acknowledged” for residents of color in Concord.   

No public buildings in town are currently named for a person of color.   

Decision made?   

In the wake of objections to bypassing an “Ellen Garrison Middle School,” School Committee members have pointed to what they called an inclusive and exhaustive public input process.  

“The citizens have already weighed in and made their voices heard,” Concord Public Schools Committee Chair Alexa Anderson said of the naming issue at a Select Board meeting in February. “Some people were going to be disappointed; that’s just the difficult reality of government.”    

And Regional School Committee Chair Tracey Marano said at a League of Women Voters candidate forum ahead of Tuesday’s election that “the School Committee has the authority to name the school building,” adding that the committee plans to “look at other ways to honor citizens” whose names were nominated for the title.

Article 22 on the Town Meeting warrant will determine whether voters will “urge the Select Board and the School Committee” to honor Garrison by naming the building for her.   

“Stand Up for Ellen” signs appearing around town, along with a new campaign website, are evidence of supporters’ continued efforts to honor the Concord-born Garrison, whose former home, The Robbins House, still stands opposite the North Bridge.   

Signs urging support for Article 22 have appeared ahead of Town Meeting. Photo by Kelly Walters

Legal questions  

Garrison’s name was first proposed for the $109 million dollar building in 2022, and support for the effort gained momentum in 2023.   

The School Committee sought legal advice to examine their existing naming policy last fall after receiving a flood of public comments on the topic. Anderson explained that, at the time, the committee struggled to find accurate records of their existing naming policy.   

A recently released legal advisory prepared by the School Committee’s attorney in November indicates that the committee voted in 2015 to delegate “naming authority [for school buildings] to the Select Board for the Town of Concord utilizing a process set forth in Town of Concord Policy APP #43.”    

On December 19, 2023, the committee updated the policy, transitioning naming authority back to itself. The committee then asked for public feedback on what to name the school in January before ultimately choosing “Concord Middle School” on February 6.   

Anderson says the committee updated their policy to align with state law and Massachusetts Association of School Committee Guidelines, which grant sole naming authority to school committees.   

Three committee members ultimately voted for the title, “Concord Middle School,” while two supported “Ellen Garrison Middle School.” METCO Representative Domingos DaRosa, a non-voting member of the committee, urged his colleagues to name the school for Garrison.  

A matter of timing  

But Williams called the committee’s handling of the process “disingenuous” after learning the previous policy had delegated naming authority to the Select Board.   

Williams (center), a longtime Concord resident, with his family. Photo courtesy of Michael Williams

“The committee had eight years to change their policy,” Williams said. “They did it only after Ellen Garrison was floated as a name.”   

Asked about that contention, Anderson noted no schools were considered for naming during that period. The last school to be named was Concord-Carlisle High School in 2015. “We had eight years of an unpublished policy that no one knew existed,” Anderson said, “so there was no reason to look at it or change it.”   

Voters will have the opportunity to voice their opinions on the subject at Town Meeting, which begins April 29.  While that vote, however it works out, is not binding, Hurley-Wales said he feels “optimistic that this community will rally” in support of the article.   

Said Marano, “We’ll listen to what Town Meeting has to say, as we always do in Concord, and have robust discussions.”