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‘Jesse Owens’ is a name worth keeping around

Updated: October 3, 2013 6:14AM

In Chicago, we take names. And we take them very seriously. Names are embedded in our cultural and political fabric. Names are emblazoned on our expressways and stadiums, perch on street signs and bridges, decorate conference rooms and statues. Even some staircases get names. Washington, Wrigley, Field, Bishop Ford, Kupcinet.

So what’s in a name, who gets a name, who gets to name? There’s a constituency and cause behind every naming decision, and often controversy.

Like the recent news that the name Jesse Owens had been removed from an elementary school on Chicago’s Far South Side. The Jesse Owens Community Academy is now called “Gompers South,” becoming another casualty of the Chicago Board of Education’s decision to close 50 public schools this fall.

In 1936, Owens won a stunning four gold medals at the Olympic Games in Berlin. The African-American son of a sharecropper was hailed internationally as a hero. His athletic exploits excoriated the racist German view of the time — that the “Aryan” people were a superior race. Owens, who was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, died a hero in 1980 at 66.

His three Chicago-area daughters have mounted opposition to the name change, lining up several dozen civic leaders who wrote to Chicago newspapers, demanding that the Owens name be restored.

“We understand CPS’ critical need to close or consolidate schools for pressing financial considerations,” they wrote, “but are outraged at the obliteration of Jesse Owens’ name, memory and spirit from a Chicago public institution of learning.”

A grade school named for Owens is a singular inspiration to disadvantaged black children in desperate need of heroes, said Marlene Owens Rankin, his youngest daughter.

After some bureaucratic finger-pointing, CPS officials scheduled a meeting with the Owens family for later this month, Rankin told me last week.

One could dismiss this as just another flash-in-the-pan squabble. After all, CPS is mired in a roaring debate over school closings and budget cuts. But this contretemps counts.

The Owens name has faded with time, besmirched by our tendency to forget our heroes. I would guess that most of the boldface names who signed that letter are over 60, while most of the children of Owens Academy had only a wisp of an idea of who he was. As Studs Terkel said, we live in the “United States of Amnesia.”

But we should not abide the erasure of history. Abolishing an honored name banishes our identity and prioritizes one community’s history over another.

If some big shot suggested tomorrow that we rename Harold Washington Library, all Hades would break loose.

But 50 years from now, I’ll bet someone will make a play to do just that — and propose we change it to, perhaps, the Barack Obama Library?

That building on South State Street has a political, social and literary cache that goes far beyond one man. When we change names, we throw away our history.

Sept. 12 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jesse Owens.

CPS should do the right thing, then work to establish firm, clear-eyed policies to protect the naming rights and legacies from foolish and arbitrary decisions — and teach our children why our names matter.


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