Public is invited to discuss the name change at June 3 forum.
Ramsey Middle School may have a new name as early as this fall. A committee of teachers, students, parents and school district staff is recommending the change to the Saint Paul School Board.
The grades 6-8 public school at 1700 Summit Ave. is named for Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota’s first territorial governor and second governor following statehood in 1858. Historians credit Ramsey with being the first governor to commit troops for the Union cause in the Civil War. A former mayor of Saint Paul, Ramsey later served as a U.S. senator and U.S. Secretary of War. However, his dealings with Native American tribes in Minnesota have come under increasing attack.
“I think the name of the school should be changed because Alexander Ramsey was a horrible person who did horrible things to people,” said Lahna Hedin, a Ramsey seventh-grader, in a video presentation at the April 13 Saint Paul School Board meeting.
“I feel like we can’t have any school spirit (with the Ramsey name),” said eighth-grader Faduma Ali in the video.
Another Ramsey student who identified herself as American Indian said she has seen students poke fun at other American Indian students at the school.
Kiernan Baxter-Kauf, a seventh-grader and member of the Ramsey student council, said she and other students want to distance the school from its namesake to create a more inclusive environment. “We have lots of kids from different backgrounds, and the goal of our school is not just to learn math and history, but to become good persons. Alexander Ramsey did not have the quality of being a nice human being.”
As territorial governor from 1849-53, Ramsey negotiated treaties between the U.S. government and Minnesota’s Dakota tribe, including the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851. Ramsey was Minnesota’s governor from 1860-63. In 1862, war broke out when small bands of Dakota attacked white settlements and government outposts in southwestern Minnesota. Many of the factors that led to the war were directly related to the treaties Ramsey helped negotiate and to the U.S. government’s failure to comply with their terms, according to the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS).
More than 600 white people were killed in the six weeks of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. All but 120 of them were unarmed men, women and children, according to the MHS. Close to 100 Dakotas were killed in the war. Another 38 were executed for their role in the war, and 130 to 300 Dakota people died from disease and harsh conditions while interned that winter in a concentration camp outside of Fort Snelling.
Ramsey has been faulted for advocating the extermination or exile of the Dakota people from Minnesota after the war.
Surveys conducted last November and December at Ramsey School showed that 87 percent of students and 93 percent of staff members were in favor of the name change.
Ramsey principal Teresa Vibar said that the prospect of changing the middle school’s name has been discussed for years. However, more recent events such as the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody last May have made such conversations more pressing, according to her.
Whether or not the school’s name is changed, Ramsey students will continue to learn about the role Alexander Ramsey played in Minnesota history, Vibar said. “While (Ramsey) might have done great things, we learn from our history,” she said.
Renaming the school would cost an estimated $11,000, according to Vibar, much of that for new signage, and the signs could be installed in conjunction with improvement projects for the building that are already planned for next year.
The Ramsey committee invites the public to weigh in on the proposed name change in an online forum at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 3, via Zoom. To access the link, visit spps.org/domain/17585. A subcommittee continues to work on the process for recommending a new name for the school, Vibar said.
School Board member John Brodrick urged district and school administrators to gather as much testimony as possible on the proposed change. “Other than closing a school, changing the name may be the most emotional thing that can happen to a school,” he said.
Ramsey alumnus Nancy Breeding said she has fond memories of the school she attended in the 1960s. She said she would prefer the school remain Ramsey because she associates the name with those memories. However, she added, “if they have good reasons for wanting to change the name, then a little progress never hurt anyone.”
— Casey Ek
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