Over the summer, Chicago residents expressed their disapproval with the legacy of Columbus, an explorer blamed for the genocide and exploitation of Indigenous people, by requesting the removal of two Columbus statues located in Grant Park and Little Italy. If our city doesn't allow statues of people who have committed such heinous acts, why should schools be named after them?
According to CPS demographics, nine out of ten students identify as black, brown, or indigenous. Despite this, as a Chicago Sun Times article reports, “Across the city, at least 30 public schools are named for people who owned or traded enslaved black or indigenous people.” Within those 30 schools, our school is among them, being named after John Hancock.
Many people know John Hancock for being a patriotic figure through his famous signature on the Declaration of Independence which signifies life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. John Hancock’s signature deems that all men were created equal. However, his actions suggest he may not have fully believed in the words on the document he was signing.
William Fowler’s The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock suggests that John Hancock did indeed own household slaves along with acres of land, allowing him to be one of the most prosperous men in the colonies. Despite this, some research suggests that he never bought or traded slaves. In fact, some believe that his slaves were inherited from his uncle, Thomas Hancock, who died in 1764, suggesting that John Hancock was not "as guilty" as his co-founders.
Unlike the majority of other slave owners who left the families of dead slaves to bury their loved ones, other research suggests that John Hancock may have offered “Frank,” who is believed to be one of the slaves Hancock inherited, a proper burial with a proper tombstone, unlike the many other slaves who received nothing.
During Hancock’s time, there were a lot of other white men who because of their white privilege had power. Regardless of the great influence and authority they possessed, these men settled for doing the bare minimum as Hancock did for the burial of his slave. Some may argue he isn’t the vile slave owner he’s made out to be, that he even showed respect for his slave as he wrote his name on a proper tomb.
However, even if Hancock could be considered decent for some of his actions, being decent is not enough to deserve the huge honor of having a building of students, who are predominately students of color, being named after them. Others may argue that no one is perfect and our founding father certainly wasn’t, but no matter how John Hancock acquired his slaves, he was a slave owner.
Another institution also originally named after a problematic figure is Douglas Park on the West Side of Chicago. In 2017, a group of students reached out to the Chicago Park District Board to push for a name change in their nearby park named after Stephen A. Douglas. Like John Hancock, Douglas was known for his controversial stance and ownership of slaves, and the students at Village Leadership Academy took note of that.
After a 45 day notice period, the name of Stephen A Douglas Park was officially changed in 2020 to Frederick Douglass Park, named after an American social reformer, abolitionist, and former slave himself.
Around the same time students at Village Leadership Academy also pushed to rename their local park in 2017, a similar demand for a name change was made by a group of parents and alumni from Agassiz Elementary School in the Lakeview neighborhood. Unfortunately, their Local School Council ultimately voted 7-5 against changing the name due to the budgets, leading us to question what is really more important: money or our anti-racist values?
In 2018, CPS created an Office of Equity to focus on providing opportunities to those who can’t easily access them, such as people of color, and following suit Hancock College Prep High School created a Race and Equity Task Force to ensure racial equality and social justice for all. However, John Hancock's name and legacy do not align with this vision or the morals of this school’s community.
In fact, when asked by the Chicago Sun Times about CPS schools named after problematic figures, Maurice Swinney, the top CPS official for racial equity, agreed, saying “It’s dehumanizing, and it’s something that we have to work on and change.”As Swinney claims, CPS does not stand for racism, so we should prove ourselves by enforcing these morals.
The official name change of Douglas Park and the removal of Chicago's Christopher Columbus statues have led the way in showing that change is possible. While CPS has not yet changed the names of any of these 30 schools named after slaveholders, we have the opportunity to be the first to commit to racial equity and representation by changing the name of ours.
As many of us know, John Hancock College Prep is transitioning to a new building, which will be ready for use by Fall 2021. As we leave behind our old building and enter a new physical space, we should also enter a new head and heart space by leaving behind our outdated name. In order to achieve this new headspace, not only does the student body need to acknowledge the problem with our current name, but we need the support of the staff to create this long-lasting change for the improvement of this community.
Although starting a new year with a new building and even a new name might sound alarming and even radical, we need to remember that our school’s legacy isn’t defined by its name but by what its name represents. Changing our name will not only teach us all an important lesson about social responsibility, but it will continue the legacy John Hancock likely hoped to leave-- equality for all.
The Social Justice Club plans to continue this conversation with Hancock students and staff during our Black History Month Student Showcase during Academic Lab on February 24. But we know that talking is not enough. Therefore, we demand action from those with the authority to create this change: the student council, the Local School Council, the Hancock Race and Equity Task Force, and our Hancock administrators. This is what Black History Month really looks like.
Hancock's Social Justice Club
This editorial was submitted to The Signature, the school newspaper. If you'd like to submit your editorial, article, essay, artwork, or photos for publication, email the journalism teacher, Mr. Salazar, at rsalazar at cps dot edu.