FORT SMITH -- The Fort Smith School District is moving forward with giving a new name to a school christened after a Confederate general.
The Fort Smith School Board approved a motion made by board member Susan McFerran on Oct. 12 to adopt Park Elementary School as the new name for Albert Pike Elementary and to authorize Superintendent Doug Brubaker to make preparations necessary to carry out the transition to the new name for the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. Six board members voted in favor of the motion. One, Wade Gilkey, voted against it.
The decision came about after the school district had released a survey on Sept. 29 to provide the board with some initial advice concerning a new name for the school. The survey asked participants for the new name they were suggesting for Albert Pike Elementary and their rationale for suggesting it. It also asked them, alongside other questions, to fill in boxes to indicate their connection with Albert Pike Elementary, the Fort Smith School District or the Fort Smith/Barling community.
Officials posted a link to the survey on the school district's website and social media, with it being sent to the families of all Albert Pike students and to staff members of the school as well, according to an abstract included in the packet for the board's Sept. 28 meeting. Paper copies of the survey were also made available for members of the community.
The survey elicited 876 responses, according to a summary of the results. Of those, 431 came from school district students and staff members. That included 238 Albert Pike students and 42 Albert Pike teachers, with 16 students and 20 teachers suggesting Park Elementary as the new name, making it the most popular suggestion within that group. Park was also the top name from district staff members and students not associated with the school, garnering 30 suggestions. The school is located at 4111 Park Ave.
The survey got 445 responses from the community. Within this group, another name, C. Ray Baker, got the most suggestions with 111, beating out Park, 41; Bass Reeves, 30; Pike, 30; and Charlotte Tidwell, 25.
Based on the volume of input received, as well as board discussions, the Fort Smith School District administration developed two possible pathways to continue the process for the board to consider, an abstract stated. They included the board choosing a new name for the school, or naming a "Pike Renaming Committee" to process the suggested names for the board to review at a later date. The abstract also laid out a recommended plan in the event the board chose the second option.
Gilkey made a motion to rename the school C. Ray Baker Elementary School, citing Baker's "outstanding history as a teacher" and all the lives he has affected in the city. However, the motion did not get a second.
Baker was a Fort Smith mayor and educator who taught U.S. history at Southside High School for 42 years before retiring in 2007, according to a previous Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article. He died in 2011 at the age of 71.
"I absolutely agree with Wade as far as [Baker being] a respectable man, and he was outstanding for this community," McFerran said. "I totally agree with that and love his family, but once we open this process with a person's name, it's going to set a precedent for our future, so my motion would be to name the school Park Elementary."
Board member Dee Blackwell said she personally liked the name of Park Elementary School.
"It is generic," Blackwell said. "From what I understand, Mr. Baker was a wonderful man for our community, for education. He was certainly a champion for children in our community. But just looking forward, a name that will stand in 50 years, 70 years, 100 years, I think that we need to consider the generic name."
The board on Aug. 24 unanimously approved a resolution expressing its intent to adopt a new name for Albert Pike Elementary for the 2021-22 school year. The resolution directed the school district administration to organize a committee to develop and recommend a renaming process involving stakeholders from the school community.
The resolution stated that Pike, a Confederate general, joined a petition in 1858 to "expel all free blacks from the State of Arkansas." He also wrote in 1868 that "We mean that the white race, and that race alone, shall govern this country. It is the only one that is fit to govern, and it is the only one that shall."
Members of the Fort Smith district's equity and minority recruitment committees discussed the name of Albert Pike Elementary School during a joint meeting July 31, an abstract included in the board's Aug. 10 meeting packet stated. Their consensus was to recommend to the board that the school be renamed.