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Examining efforts to rename Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and select CMSD schools named after slave holders

Cleveland City Council recently passed a resolution urging Cleveland State University to rename the law school.

CLEVELAND — Cleveland City Council on Monday unanimously passed a resolution urging that the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University change its name.

The school is currently named after former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. The resolution, introduced by Councilman Kevin Conwell, states that historians believe Marshall owned hundreds of slaves on his several properties in various states.

"Though Marshall opposed the slave trade, he nevertheless owned slaves most of his life," the resolution added.

Even before Monday's council resolution was announced, the college has been taking a long, hard look at its name. As the nation was swept up in the calls for racial justice amid the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, a petition calling for the removal of Marshall's name was sent to both the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at CSU, as well as at the John Marshall Law School at the University of Illinois Chicago.

"Anyone that was a former slave holder, that's wrong," Conwell told 3News Tuesday. "Anyone that has oppressed any individual, our children should not be honoring them by keeping their names alive."

CSU responded by forming a committee of faculty, staff, students, and alumni to begin the process of reviewing whether the name 'Marshall' should be removed. In 2021, the college held a series of six public forums to consider the matter: Three public virtual forums looked at how historians view institutional name changes and how other schools were handling similar cases, and three community town halls then allowed students, staff, faculty, and many alumni to express their views.

The committee pieced together a framing document laying out the arguments for and against changing the name, plus some alternative naming options. Law school and CSU community members are encouraged to fill out a feedback form between now and Jan. 17, and the college will then submit its findings to the university, which has the ultimate authority on whether or not the law school will change its name. 

Lee Fisher, dean of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, said in a statement to 3News: 

"We value the input of Cleveland City Council and members of the Cleveland community on this consequential decision for our law school. We are reviewing the resolution and carefully considering it as part of the inclusive and deliberative process evaluating our name. We look forward to updating the community on our progress."

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District is also considering renaming seven schools that currently bear the names of slaveholders and other historical figures who legacies have been tarnished by racism. The city council also passed a resolution in 2020, urging CMSD to rename schools commemorating figures like Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry in a district where 64% of students are African American.

Conwell would like to see the schools bear names like Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, the late Ohio congresswoman. If that happens, then "that child will be able to see someone who looks like her and say, 'I want to become a judge, or a prosecutor, or a congresswoman.'"

The district identified five elementary schools — Albert Bushnell Hart, Louis Agassiz, Luis Marin, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry — which are named after people who had documented histories of participating in "systemic racism" and "oppression." Following a review, process, these schools could potentially have new names by the 2022-23 school year.

Two Cleveland high schools named after John Marshall and James Ford Rhodes are being considered for a name changes at a later date. No specific timeline has been given.

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