Published September 25, 2023

What's in a (School) Name?

Did you know that there are actually a number of schools in the United States that are named in honor of LGBTQ individuals – some knowingly and some unintentionally? This episode is an exploration of school names that uncover some LGBTQ history hiding in plain sight! 

This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council. It was developed by History UnErased and produced and edited by Dinah Mack; Kathleen Barker; and Deb Fowler. You can also find this episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, or anywhere you get your podcasts!



Deb Fowler: Hello, and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. I’m Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased.

To celebrate a new school year, we are starting our new podcast season with “What’s in a Name?”, an exploration of school names with a story to tell. Are you ready to uncover some LGBTQ history hiding in plain sight?

Take it away, Kathleen!

Kathleen Barker: It’s September again, which meant, for many educators (and students!), it was time to head back to school. What is the name of your school and why does it have that name? Have you ever even asked that question? Perhaps you are one of thousands who studied or worked in a school building named after Martin Luther King, Jr., or John F. Kennedy, or Thomas Jefferson? Maybe Thomas Edison or Abraham Lincoln? But maybe you go to a school with a more unique name, honoring someone in your state or local community, or a historical change-maker that represents the academic focus or values of your school.  

Did you know that there are actually a number of schools in the United States that are named in honor of LGBTQ individuals – some knowingly and some unintentionally? 

This episode of What’s in Name will look at 4 schools with a story that includes some LGBTQ history– if we leave yours out, get in touch! We are making a map of these schools and would love to include as many as we can. 

First up, we head to Lorraine Hansberry Elementary School in Queens, NY. 

Maybe you’ve read or seen her play, A Raisin in the Sun, but did you know that it was the first play written by an African-American woman to be performed on Broadway? Hansberry’s work was inspired by her childhood in Chicago. In 1939, when she was only 8 years old, her family moved to the all-white neighborhood of Woodlawn on the city’s south side. When neighbors tried to enforce a restrictive covenant that prevented the sale of property to African American families, the Hansberrys fought back. Their legal efforts led to a U.S. Supreme Court case, Hansberry v. Lee. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, and the Hansberrys were able to stay in their home, although the Court did not find restrictive covenants unconstitutional for another eight years. 

Her parents were active in local politics, and the Hansberrys often hosted black changemakers in their home, including W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Jesse Owens, and Duke Ellington. Lorraine became politically active while studying at the University of Wisconsin. After moving to New York City in 1951, She joined the staff of Freedom, a black newspaper published by Robeson. Her news articles and editorials explored topics related to the civil rights movements, as well as international struggles against colonialism and imperialism.  

In 1953, Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a political activist, songwriter, and publisher, although the two would divorce in 1957. That same year, she joined the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights group in the United States. She even contributed letters to the organization’s magazine, The Ladder, on topics such as inequalities faced by women, even in the gay community, and the ways in which lesbians were forced to conform to societal stereotypes about women. These pieces were published using only her initials – L.H.N or L.N. Although Hansberry was not open about her sexuality during her lifetime, her writings provide us with important examples of intersectional representation. 

In Springfield, Illinois, Jane Addams Elementary School, honors one of the most prominent women of the Progressive Era, Jane Addams. Addams was an educator and social reformer who worked to improve the lives of immigrants and the poor in Chicago during the late 19th century. 

Addams was born in 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois, the eighth of nine children. Her mother died when she was only 2 years old. Her father, a Quaker and Abolitionist, was one of the wealthiest men in town, a prosperous miller, president of a bank, director of railroads, and a local political leader. He was elected Illinois state Senator in 1854 and served eight terms! In 1881, Addams graduated at the top of her class from Rockford Female Seminary. After college, she desired a career in medicine but was stymied by back problems that caused chronic pain. On a tour of Europe with Ellen Gates Starr, Addams was inspired by a trip to a settlement house called Toynbee Hall in London that provided social services to poor workers. Addams was determined to bring that kind of service back home. In 1889, Addams and Starr founded Hull House in Chicago, which was the first settlement house in the United States. The goal of which was “for educated women to share all kinds of knowledge, from basic skills to arts and literature, with poorer people in the neighborhood.” Under the direction of Addams, Hull House provided essential services such as day care and job training to thousands of people each week, and eventually became the model for other settlement houses throughout the country. 

Its leaders were also active in social reform working on issues such as public health, the eradication of child labor, and labor laws.

As Addams became well known through her writing and activism, her civic engagement grew and in 1910 she received the first honorary degree ever awarded to a woman by Yale University. In 1931 Addams won the Nobel Peace Prize for her activism, the first American woman to receive the award.

All the while, Addams and Starr worked and lived together in a Boston marriage,  a term coined in the late nineteenth century to describe a domestic relationship between two middle- or upper-class women, independent of financial support from a man. Later in her life, Addams entered into a relationship for 40 years with Mary Rozet Smith, a philanthropist and benefactor of Hull House. 

Bayard Rustin Elementary School in Rockville, Maryland, is the first school in Montgomery County to be named for an out gay man. In 2018, the county’s board of education chose the name with support from local parents, students, and educators. 

Rustin was born in 1912 in Pennsylvania and raised by his Quaker grandparents. His grandmother, Julia Rustin, was a member of the NAACP, and leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, and Mary McLeod Bethune were frequent guests in the Rustin home. Bayard was a talented musician, and he attended Wilberforce College in Ohio on a music scholarship. He sang tenor and traveled throughout the US with the acclaimed Wilberforce Quartet. Unfortunately, he was expelled from Wilberforce in 1936 for organizing a campus-wide protest against the poor quality of cafeteria food!

Rustin moved to Harlem in 1937 and began studying at City College of New York. Over the next several years, he became an active participant in the civil rights movement. In 1942, he helped establish the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and he helped organize CORE’s Journey for Reconciliation, also known as the “First Freedom Ride,” which was designed to test a 1946 Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation on interstate bus travel. Participants were arrested several times, and Rustin even served twenty-two days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violating state laws regarding segregated seating on public transportation. 

Although Rustin was involved in the civil rights movement for decades, he is perhaps best known for his role in organizing the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. More than 250,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C. to protest society’s unequal treatment of African Americans. Many people associate the March with Martin Luther King Jr.’s eloquent “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But Bayard Rustin, the man who organized this March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, spoke that day, too. He read a list of demands before the crowd. It included their ideas for civil rights laws, including the desegregation of schools, protection of the right to vote, and the enforcement of fair employment practices. His work on behalf of African Americans led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that banned segregation in public places. Although the march was a success, Bayard was often left out of the history books. At least until more recently! In 2013, Rustin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 26 years after his death. At the ceremony, the medal was given to Walter Naegle, Bayard’s life partner. 

Rustin was involved in freedom movements not just in the United States, but across the globe, working with refugees from Haiti, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In the 1970s and 1980s, he served as Chairman of the Executive Committee of Freedom House, an agency that monitors international freedom and human rights. Rustin traveled to countries including Zimbabwe, El Salvador, and Grenada to observe elections. 

While Rustin worked on an international scale, our next school honors a person who fought for equality through her work in space!

In 1984, the children of Sally K. Ride Elementary School in Woodlands, Texas presented a plaque to Dr. Ride. The plaque, now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum, was created for  her “in respect and admiration” for her scientific accomplishments. The Woodlands school is one of several named after Ride, including others in Germantown, Maryland, Orlando, Florida, and Los Angeles, California. 

Born in Encino, California, in 1951, Sally loved two things as a child: science and playing tennis. She even ranked in the top 20 of the junior tennis circuit! Ride attended Swarthmore College, but left to play tennis professionally. About three months later she decided to return to college at Stanford, and in 1973, she received a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Science in Physics. In 1977, while she was a graduate student in physics at Stanford, Ride saw an advertisement for NASA in the student newspaper. The agency was searching for young scientists to serve as “mission specialists” on future space flights. She was one of 35 applicants (and one of only 6 women) to be accepted into the astronaut program -- out of more than 8,000 applicants! While preparing for her mission, interviewers often asked her sexist questions, like what kind of make-up she would wear in space, or whether she cried when things went wrong. 

In spite of this treatment, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride made history when she became the first American woman to travel to space. 

Newsreel: Counting the sequencer on board now controlling the final seconds; t-minus 17 seconds and counting. The body flap and speed break are in launch position. t-minus 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, we go for main engine start, we have main engine start and ignition, and lift off, lift off of SPF 70 and America’s first woman astronaut - and the shuttle has cleared the tower.

KB: After years of training, she served as one of five crew members on the shuttle Challenger. When her career as an astronaut ended she devoted the rest of her life to helping young people, especially girls, receive equal opportunities to succeed in fields like math, science, and engineering. She also wrote many children’s books about science and space exploration with Tam O'Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years. Sally Ride was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to science and education in 2013, one year after her death. Accepting the award on her behalf was her longtime partner and co-founder of Sally Ride Science, Dr. Tam O'Shaughnessy.

So … what’s in a name? In the case of these four schools, a lot of hidden LGBTQ history! We hope our podcast has prompted you to think about the names of schools in your community. What’s the story behind those names? Take some time to learn about who your local communities have chosen to honor when naming schools and other official buildings. We hope you discover new people and places to celebrate! And that perhaps you discover some LGBTQ history that has been hiding in plain sight.

DF: Kathleen Barker is History UnErased’s program director and is a library and information specialist and public historian with 20 years of experience as a museum and library educator. 

This podcast is funded by the New York City Council. It was developed by History UnErased and produced and edited by Dinah Mack, our youth equity program director.

Our theme music is “1986” by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise. 

I’m Deb Fowler. Thanks for listening.