Respect the arc of history with new name: Henry Grady-Yolanda King High School
By Maria Saporta
This is the second of a two-part series about Henry Grady and efforts to change the name of Grady High School. The first column appeared last week.
Back when I was a student at Grady High School, I remember my Georgia history teacher pointing to a sentence in our textbook that said Henry Grady was a great Southerner and orator.
“That’s why our newspaper is called the Southerner and our yearbook is called the Orator,” she told us.
It was during my time as a reporter and news editor on the staff of the Southerner that I discovered my love for journalism – a love that has lasted five decades.
In many ways, Henry Grady has been a presence that has followed me ever since. When I worked at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years, I would pass by the Henry Grady statue every day on my way to work. In the lobby of the newspaper, in large italic letters, there was a quote from one of Grady’s speeches: “We have raised a brave and beautiful city.”
During that time and since, I learned quite a bit about Grady, who leveraged his role as editor of the Atlanta Constitution to push his pro-Atlanta agenda. Grady was largely responsible for Atlanta becoming the dominant city in Georgia following the Civil War.
In the 1880s, Grady also was key in launching the Cotton States Expositions in Atlanta – a platform to promote “the New South.” The goal was for the South to gain economic independence from the North by developing its own manufacturing facilities.
One of my favorite passages by Grady was in the last major speech he gave about two weeks before his death in 1889 at the young age of 39 when he described attending a funeral in Pickens County where “the South didn’t furnish a thing on earth for that funeral but the corpse and the hole in the ground.”
Thanks to the vision of Henry Grady, Atlanta built a major public hospital, which opened a couple of years after his death and was named in his honor. The “New South” initiative also led to the creation of Georgia Tech in 1885 to help develop the South’s industrial base.
Over the years, I realized how influential Grady was in creating “the Atlanta Way” – the coalescing of leaders to push the city forward – leading to Atlanta becoming the Southeast’s capital city.
But I also realized that Grady’s views on race were just plain wrong. Current Grady students and recent alums are pushing to change the name of Grady High School because they describe Grady as a racist and white supremacist.
The Atlanta Board of Education currently is holding public sessions on the Henry W. Grady Renaming Committee, which is chaired by school board member Leslie Grant.
After listening to a couple of those sessions, it has become painfully apparent of a great divide among those who want to change the name of the high school and those who want the Grady name to stay. In many ways, it is a generational divide – one that may be hard to bridge.
In a recent conversation with former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, he said he was against changing the name. “I think it’s a distraction to deal with the symptoms rather than substance,” Young said.
It also strikes me we’re judging a man who lived more than 140 years ago through today’s filter of racial awareness.
And I’m concerned about the slippery slope; where does this end?
For example, at the Sept. 18 opening of the 1895 Cotton States Exposition, Booker T. Washington gave his famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech – the first one given by an African American to a racially-mixed audience in the South.
Part of the compromise was Washington’s acceptance of social segregation: “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”
So, given Washington’s sentiments, should we change the name of Booker T. Washington High School? Obviously, I’m not advocating for changing the name of Booker T. Washington High School.
Instead, I believe we can leverage the lives of these leaders to learn our history and see how far we’ve come.
In the case of Grady High School, I believe there’s a compromise where everyone can win.
For history’s sake, let’s keep Grady in the name. But let’s add the name of someone who symbolizes our recent journey towards racial integration and equality.
Yolanda Denise King would be my pick. Yolanda King, the eldest child of Martin Luther King Jr., graduated from Grady in 1972 – attending during the volatile time when the school was becoming a truly integrated institution.
Yolanda King, who died in 2007 when she was only 51, actually integrated Spring Street Elementary School in the fall of 1966 before going to Grady. (In the interest of full disclosure, Yolanda King and I were close friends at Spring Street and Grady).
Yolanda was attending Grady when her father was assassinated in 1968. Instead of becoming bitter, Yolanda worked hard to create strong multiracial relationships and serving as class president for two years. Yolanda went on to have a successful acting career in the 1990s appearing in 10 separate projects.
Yolanda King continued to hold Grady close to her heart throughout her life – attending reunions and even spearheading an effort in the mid 1990s to bring together Grady alums to mentor current high school students.
The combined name of Henry Grady – Yolanda King would represent the true spirit of Atlanta and bridge the arc of our unique history. Over time, the name the high school likely would shortened to Grady-King High School – a name that would make any Atlantan proud.