What's in a Name: Issues of Race, Gender, Culture, and Power in the Naming of Public School Buildings in Kansas City, Missouri, 1940-1995

By Moran, Peter W. | Planning and Changing, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

What's in a Name: Issues of Race, Gender, Culture, and Power in the Naming of Public School Buildings in Kansas City, Missouri, 1940-1995


Moran, Peter W., Planning and Changing


In virtually all societies, naming is an act steeped in cultural meanings and value considerations. Naming of children is arguably one of the more significant cultural events in a person's life (e.g., Alford, 1988; Van Poppel & Smith, 1999). The naming of public buildings, too, makes a profound statement about what or whom a particular society holds in high regard. To put it simply, buildings are not named for just anyone. On one level, naming a public building after a person is an affirmation of what a society deems to be significant accomplishments or outstanding service, or recognition of someone who is considered to be of historical or cultural importance. Naming a building after a person further implies that the person honored possesses the appropriate qualities necessary to be recognized in such a permanent fashion, and that the individual was, in some respects, the embodiment of the community's shared values.

At a different level, the act of naming is plainly a statement regarding power. In many respects the power to name something or some place is an expression of control or a manifestation of influence over the process of selecting a name. The power to bestow a name on a public place is thereby both an assertion of authority and an affirmation of where that authority resides in a particular community. Thus, the naming of a public building may not necessarily illustrate the shared values of an entire community, but rather at times reflects the narrower interests and values of those individuals who have the greatest influence in the process of selecting the name (Greenblatt, 1991; Stewart, 1958; Stump, 1988).1

This article will analyze the naming of public school buildings in Kansas City, Missouri between the 1940s and early 1990s, exploring the values which were implicit in the selection of names, as well as the individuals or groups that had the greatest influence in the process of selecting names. Particular attention will be paid to the manner in which the values endorsed through the act of naming shifted over time, and how the individuals and groups that controlled the process changed during this roughly fifty year period. Moreover, developments in Kansas City will be examined from the perspective of Paulo Freire's (1970/1993) critical analysis of language and power relationships inherent in communication and education. Freire proposed that language is a powerful tool which may be used as either an instrument of domination or liberation. As we shall see, initially naming schools was an act of domination, an assertion of power by a very small group of influential individuals-high ranking officials in the school district's central administration and the members of the Board of Education. Over time, however, the process by which school names were selected changed and the locus of power shifted in such a way that the authority to bestow names on schools was shared with the broader community and reflected more accurately the demographic composition and cultural diversity of the city. In essence, to paraphrase Freire, this analysis of school naming and the power relationships inherent in the process illustrates how communication can be transformed from an abstraction controlled by elites to a new reality in which the larger community may participate in the dialogue, construct meaning, exert influence, and take part in "naming the world" (p. 69).

School Naming Practices in the Late Segregated Period, 1940-1954

In 1940, Kansas City was home to a little more than 400,000 residents, about 10% of whom were African-American (U. S. Bureau of the Census, 1942). As the map of the 1940 census indicates (see Appendix, Figure 1), the great majority of Kansas City's African-American population lived in a large central neighborhood just east of downtown. Other significant pockets of black population were located on the city's west side and in two small enclaves to the south and southeast. Kansas City's segregated school system in the 1940s was comprised of more than sixty schools for white students and twelve for African-Americans, and in Kansas City there was clearly a racially specific quality to the naming of schools (Kansas City Missouri School District [KCMSD], 1941). …

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