Ramsey community provides feedback on potential namesakes

Site Council votes to forward process to School Board

Ramsey Middle School students vote Tuesday on a potential new namesake for the school. Photo by Nate Gotlieb
Ramsey Middle School students vote Tuesday on a potential new namesake for the school. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

The Ramsey Middle School site council voted March 7 in favor of changing the school’s name.

The site council voted to send three potential namesakes to the Board of Education: ex-Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle and former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, 19th-century physician Martha Ripley and the phrase Bde Ota, which means “many lakes” in the Dakota language.

Most site council members had Page as their first choice for a new namesake. Their motion to the School Board emphasizes that Page is the top choice.

Site council members were almost unanimously in favor of sending their recommendation for changing the name to the School Board. Their vote came after hours of  discussion over several site council meetings. Principal Erin Rathke stressed that any rename would not take over the academic priorities of the building.

The Ramsey community had voted on the five finalists for a potential new school namesake — Dorothy Vaughan, Page, Prince Rogers Nelson, Bde Ota and Ripley — during a Feb. 28 community event.

More than 130 people cast votes at the event, with Page, Ripley and Bde Ota receiving the most votes. Page was above the other two “by a lot,” according to social studies teacher Paul Sommers.

Ramsey is currently named after former Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsey, who was governor of Minnesota during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Ramsey said in a speech during the war that “the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of Minnesota.”

Thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in the war’s aftermath, and several thousand Dakota people were forced from their homelands and into camps. Minnesota later offered bounties for Dakota scalps in response to raids by Dakota in southern Minnesota.

Ramsey sixth-graders learn about Alexander Ramsey’s role in the state’s history as part of their History of Minnesota course. Each year, many of them question why the school would be named after Alexander Ramsey, Sommers and art teacher Elissa Cedarleaf Dahl wrote on a website dedicated to the renaming effort.

“Students at this age become very tuned in to a sense of justice and are beginning to carve out their morals and values,” the website says. “They seek heroes to emulate and many do not find inspiration in our current namesake.”

Ramsey students have expressed interest in renaming the school each year since it began operating as a middle school five years ago, Sommers and Cedarleaf Dahl wrote. This year, students came to the first open house ready to start the campaign, passing out “Rename Ramsey” stickers to students and staff.

“They were letting me know the first day I was here that this was something they wanted to pursue,” Rathke said.

The school’s instructional leadership team and site council voted unanimously this past fall to start exploring a name change. The school hosted a community event in December to discuss the process, and leaders of the effort presented the top five names to the student body during a February assembly.

Students helped raise money to support the effort, hosting a shoveling fundraiser over winter break. They also helped at a fundraiser last month to raise money for the effort.

Ramsey had raised $7,500 for the effort as of Feb. 26, according to the website. District policy requires that recommendations for a name change come with a plan for paying for any signage changes.

Costs could range from $3,850 to $17,995, the website says.

Rathke said the process has given the students “a really rigorous life skills-filled curriculum around something that’s very real for them.” She didn’t give her opinion about a potential name change but said she’s excited for the kids that it’s gone this far.

Tonya Tennessen, the district’s chief communications officer, said in a statement that the district is proud of the Ramsey students “because student voices are critical in any discussion of equity.”

“While it is still fairly early in the process, we support their efforts to drive this important conversation and look forward to hearing the recommendations of the school,” she said.

The change appears to have broad support among the Ramsey community. A website survey found that 85 percent of the Ramsey community favored renaming the school. A survey of students found that 75 percent of them were in favor of a name change. Staff support was at 95 percent, another survey found.

Students at the community event said they want a name that’s more representative of their values.

“It just doesn’t represent what we think at the school or who we are,” said eighth-grader Audrey Cronin.

Eighth-grader Lou Lou Lambert said she favors naming the school after Prince, since he “broke so many boundaries about what it meant to be so many different things.”

Eighth-grader Olivia Bordon said she favors the name Bde Ota. Bordon noted that the renaming process came about because of what Alexander Ramsey did to the Dakota, adding that it would be “empowering” to have a Dakota word as the name.

Ramsey parent Marshall Onsrud, who attended the school as a student, said he was apprehensive about the effort at first but became excited after he saw the students’ effort.

Onsrud, whose dad also attended Ramsey, didn’t vote on any of the names but said they are all good choices.

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  • Henrik

    There is an almost 90-year history behind the name Ramsey Junior High/Middle School in this community. You can’t simply erase all those decades of history or the memories of generations of former students. Should the name be changed, the building will still bear the moniker, “the school formerly known as Ramsey.”

    Regardless of the outcome of this campaign, Alexander Ramsey will remain an important figure in Minnesota History, one who was instrumental to the initial funding of public schools in Minnesota (one of the reasons cited for naming the school after him in the first place) and who oversaw the preservation of history as the head of the Minnesota Historical Society for more than a quarter of a century. How ironic it would be should his very name be erased from the side of the building in an attempt to airbrush history to our liking – especially so in this year of political disinformation, fake news and revisionist history.

    If nothing else, the Alexander Ramsey name has proven its worth as a touchstone for learning about our past and for fostering a conversation among students about history, culture, race, values and beliefs. It should remain in place for the benefit of future generations of Ramsey middle schoolers so that they, too, will be able to benefit from engaging in such a journey of discovery and reflection.

  • Paul Sommers

    Well written, Henrik. I especially like your last paragraph. There will be no attempt to “airbrush” history away or remove his name engraved on the facade of our building. Keeping it there allows us to keep the stories of Ramsey and the stories of why some folks organized to change the name. An engraved bust of Ramsey is also plastered into the wall of the school on the first floor. I once heard a historian talk about “revisionist history.” He said he like revisionist history about as much as he liked revisionist medicinal practices :).

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