Ramsey Middle School could well reopen in September with a new name: Hidden River Middle School, a reference to an underground aquifer that runs beneath the school at 1700 Summit Ave.

Hidden River was the favorite among students and staff of the more than 200 names that have been suggested over the past year. It won out over the nine other semi-finalists: Grand Summit, Hanwi, Imniza Ska, Mni Sota Makoce, Philando Castile, Reaching Stars, Summit, Wakpa Thanka, and Woksape middle school.

ramsey middle school
Ramsey principal Teresa Vibar looks over the results of the ranked-choice voting for a new name with representatives of the sixth-grade on the middle school’s student council. Photo by Brad Stauffer

The school’s current namesake, Alexander Ramsey (1815-1903), fell out of favor with students and staff at the school due to his relationship with the state’s American Indian population, according to Ramsey principal Teresa Vibar. “While Ramsey may have done some great things, he did some things that our students take offense to,” Vibar said.

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A former Saint Paul mayor, Ramsey was the state’s territorial governor from 1849-53 when he helped negotiate treaties between the U.S. government and the Dakota tribe in Minnesota. Following statehood in 1858, Ramsey served as governor from 1860-63. In 1862, small bands of Dakotas attacked several white settlements and government outposts in southwestern Minnesota. Many of the factors that led to the ensuing six-week armed conflict were related to the U.S. government’s failure to comply with the treaties Ramsey helped negotiate, according to the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS).

Ramsey has been faulted for urging the extermination or exile of the Dakota in the aftermath of the war. More than 600 white people were killed in the conflict, and 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 from 130 to 300 Dakotas died from disease and harsh conditions while interned that winter in a concentration camp outside of Fort Snelling.

“A school name is an outer representation of a school’s values and principles,” said Ramsey eighth-grader Katherine Norton-Bower. “If the name embodies a history of cruelty and hate, it contradicts the inclusive community that Ramsey strives to be.”

“A school name is an outer representation of a school’s values and principles,” said Ramsey eighth-grader Katherine Norton-Bower. “If the name embodies a history of cruelty and hate, it contradicts the inclusive community that Ramsey strives to be.”

“It’s truly a joy to know that our school won’t be named after a racist murderer anymore,” said Ramsey sixth-grader Hafsa Ali. “Just think about how bad you’d feel being named after a guy who said killing Native Americans was OK. That’s just horrible.”

The Saint Paul School Board is expected to ratify Hidden River as the new name for Ramsey Middle School at its meeting on June 21. According to school district policy, the proposed name must be read at three School Board meetings before it can be adopted. The first two readings came at the May 10 Committee of the Board and May 24 School Board meetings.

The long road to a renaming.

The name change comes after years of workshops among Ramsey students, faculty, staff, alumni and others. The process was launched when Ramsey Student Council representatives brought up the idea and made a presentation to their fellow students. In November 2020, 87 percent of Ramsey students voted in favor of a name change. The following month, 93 percent of Ramsey faculty and staff voted in favor.

The school’s name-change committee has been collecting suggestions online for over a year. The suggestions were narrowed down by applying a set of guiding principles: Twenty-five to 40 percent of the finalists for the new name were to reflect Dakota heritage; the committee was not to consider the names of people who are alive or have been dead for less than five years; the new name should reflect the heritage of Minnesota, the local community or student body; and any namesake should have had a positive influence on the issues of race and inclusion.

“We want to be a building that honors all people,” Vibar said. 

In April Ramsey students and staff narrowed the suggested names to 10 through ranked-choice voting. In May they voted again and narrowed the pool to five finalists, then took another vote.

In the first round, Hidden River garnered 150 votes, Philando Castile got 57, Summit got 56, Grand Summit got 53, and Hanwi got 46. In the second round, Hidden River led with 172 votes, Philando Castile got 65, Summit got 63 and Grand Summit got 60.  In the final round, Hidden River got 205 votes, Philando Castile got 72, and Summit got 83.

Ramsey School has had its name changed several times over the past century. In the 1920s and ’30s, it was Maria Sanford Junior High School, named after a University of Minnesota English professor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sometime later, it adopted Ramsey as its name and became an elementary school before switching back to a junior high school in 1965 and eventually a middle school.

— Casey Ek

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