Latinx activists in the city of Illinois oppose the renaming of Thomas Jefferson Middle School by the Obamas

Residents of a Chicago city are divided over how to rebuild a school named after the founding father who enslaved hundreds of black people.


Most Waukegan residents say they do not want Thomas Jefferson Middle School to keep its name. But they have not been able to agree on someone else to name the school.

One of the leading contenders is Barack and Michelle Obama Middle School. For some in the community, however, that approach does not work.

Many Latinx activists and community members in Waukegan, Illinois, expressed opposition to the proposal at a school board meeting on Tuesday, citing the former president's record of deportation.

"I want to urge the school board to remove the names of Barack and Michelle Obama," said Oscar Arias, a native of Waukegan and a graduate of the district's schools. "Barack Obama's presidency was full of animosity with the immigrant community."

The other two pre-public options are John Lewis Middle School and Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez Middle School. School officials also intend to rename Daniel Webster Middle School.

Latinos make up the majority of the student body

During his tenure, Obama made a name for himself among immigrant groups as a "deporter-in-chief" - a label that was also used by protesters at a recent school board meeting. While Obama's immigration record is difficult, millions of people were removed from America under his administration.

About 78% of students at Waukegan Public Schools are Spanish or Latino, as is the case with about 55% of Waukegan residents. About 30% of the city's population is native, Census data shows.

Opponents of the school's naming of the Obamas say the actions of the former President have affected Waukegan families, and the name will have painful memories for some in the community.

Yes, Obama deported more people than Trump but the context is everything

"We feel that Barack Obama has used us. He has denied us. And he has not stopped the deportation in the way he promised," local activist Julie Contreras said in a protest outside the convention doors.

He continued, "If you remove the name of Thomas Jefferson, one dictator, the name of Obama is another dictator. And our families do not want to see that name."

Some community members who spoke at the meeting recommended that the board instead elect John Lewis.

"As a prominent and influential civil rights activist in partnership with Dr. King, John Lewis is an excellent public advocate and embodies the spirit of progress and multiculturalism in Waukegan," Arias said.

Wygenia Brisco said that as an African American, he supported naming the school after the last human rights corpse.

"I think if we look at what he stands for, in the true sense of what he stands for, for me it is appropriate to name the school after him," he said.

The board will vote by name next month

The Waukegan education board began considering changes to names in two regional schools after the death of George Floyd when he was arrested by Minnesota police last year, said board president Brandon Ewing.

A group of students and community members applied to the board last summer to rename Thomas Jefferson Middle School, and the board decided in November to consider renaming the school and Daniel Webster Middle School, Ewing told CNN. Webster, a former Minister and Senator who became Secretary of State in 1850, was determined to allow the institution of slavery to continue in the South.

Waukegan activists say many families were separated by deportations that took place during President Obama's tenure.

Waukegan activists say many families were separated by deportations that took place during President Obama's tenure.

Each school committee requested proposals for new names in the community and eventually reduced the list of names to 300 to six. Students, parents and school staff voted on those options and reduced the three choices.

The three proposed names of Daniel Webster Middle School are Edith Smith, who fought to divide Waukegan schools; Katherine Johnson, a prominent NASA mathematician; and Ellen Ochoa, Spain's first female astronaut.

The Waukegan board of education will officially decide to rename the two middle schools at its next meeting on April 13. If it chooses to move forward, the board will then vote on the proposed options and the first to get four votes will be the new name, Ewing said.

“While there is a difference in one of the names, I think the public should be proud of the work done and the thought and care that went into the program,” Ewing said.