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Yale 62

Help me save the name of my high school.

By Roman Weil

I’m trying to save the name of my high school and write to enlist you in the effort.

At least half of you, I’ll bet, have not heard of Sidney Lanier, the Poet of the Confederacy, who spent most of the Civil War in a POW camp as a private. He played the flute and wrote poems. In spite of the fact that he spent only two years in Montgomery, Alabama and most of his adult life on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University, Montgomery educators named a high school for him in 1910. When a new, elegant building was erected in the late 1920s that merged two schools, the new school’s name was decided by the outcome of a football game between the two schools being merged. The old Lanier won, so the new school carried over the name Sidney Lanier High School. Its mascot is The Poets. The marvelous building appears below.

Sidney Lanier High

Its most famous alums are Hank Williams and Bart Starr. Our class’s best known alum is (Toni) Tennille, spouse of The Captain. The Wikipedia entry tells more, listing alumni economists after entertainers, sports stars, astronauts, and politicians.

Two other high schools in Montgomery carry names of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. In July 2020, the Montgomery County School Board voted to change the names of the three schools whose eponyms had served the Confederacy. The Alabama State Legislature had passed a law in 2017 that requires those changing names (and removing statues) to pay $25,000 for each instance. Those backing the name changes have raised, last I heard, $100,000 to pay the fines. Some members of the Board have had second thoughts about the decision to drop Lanier’s name: he never owned slaves and although he did serve in the Army from his age 18, never fought for the Confederacy in any real sense. He played in the band.

The Board has indicated that the renaming process will consider letting the new name for the school that has been Sidley Lanier be Sidney Lanier. The Board has a website where anyone, Alabamian or not, can indicate a preference for the new name.

I write here to invite my classmates to submit a preference for the new name to be Sidney Lanier. We Poets want to remain Poets. What a wonderful mascot. Did you know that Bulldogs is the most common college mascot? We Poets like that we are among the most uncommon, but not a name like, say, the Banana Slugs, that elicits a laugh.
Go to the website MPS.K12.AL.US and scroll down to the 3rd green link on the left, which says “MPS School Name Change Suggestion Form.” Click there. I hope you will vote for Sidney Lanier to replace Sidney Lanier.

I suspect that Martin L. King, Jr. and Rosa Parks will be odds-on to replace Davis and Lee.

My editors here asked for more on my high school experience. You have no idea how great was the education segregated Lanier provided in the 1950s. You likely can’t imagine that a public high school in low-rated Alabama could do anything well. But consider that in those days the only jobs available to talented women were nurse and school teacher. The women who were our teachers would today be doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, captains of industry, politicians, judges, et al. Our teachers were bright, energetic and took no BS from us smart-alecks. “Roman, you are doing the best work in class, but you are laaazy, so you have earned a B.” I complained to my father and got no sympathy.

I regret about the education that we had no calculus, but we had five years of Latin and learned how to diagram sentences. Of my Yale acquaintances, only Ellis Wisner had more and better. After the miseries of Math 10, I caught up in math. The English professors had no interest, so far as I could see, in teaching grammar. My prep school classmates had many advantages over us public school boys from the South, but their training in Latin, English grammar, algebra, science basics, and classroom discipline did not best ours.

As a further note, I observe that it took over a decade for Brown v Board of Education to take hold in integrating the high schools in Montgomery, so that by the time my brother, twelve years younger, went to public high schools, the Board of Education had gerrymandered and build a new high school in a part of town where mostly Whites lived. By his time, Lanier was mostly Black and his school, Davis, he recalls, had fewer than a dozen Blacks in a class of 600. Meanwhile, private, so-called independent schools began to take over the enrollments of upper middle class students and taxpayer support for public schools began a steady decline. This past November 2020 saw the first tax increase in about fifty years to support public schools. Decades have passed without Lanier’s offering Latin. If you visit its website and look at the pictures, you will look hard to find the single white face.


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