Residents lobby for new middle school to be named for civil rights pioneer Ellen Garrison 

By Kelly Walters  Correspondent
November 24, 2023

Concord School Committee members are trying to find clarity on an issue that is quickly gaining steam among town residents: whether to open a public process to choose a new name for the middle school building taking shape at 923 Old Marlboro Road. 

Residents flooded the committee’s meetings with comments about the naming process this month, with most advocating for a hearing to give the public a voice on the subject. 

“We’re discussing the possibility of giving Concord residents — who pride themselves on being revolutionary — the revolutionary act of being able to be given a voice in a choice that is for their entire town,” Robbins House President Nikki Turpin said at a November 14 School Committee meeting. 

Many of the advocates already have a namesake in mind for the new building: Ellen Garrison.  

Diversity Equity and Inclusion Commission Co-Chair Joe Palumbo said he and other Robbins House board members first considered advocating for the school to be named for Garrison in the fall of 2022. The conversation gained momentum this April, he said, after a Concord250 event celebrating Garrison’s life introduced many residents to her pioneering work as an antislavery activist and educator. 

Since then, an online petition to name the school after Garrison has amassed more than 1,000 signatures.  

Garrison was a native Concordian and granddaughter of an enslaved man who fought at the North Bridge, Palumbo explained. She attended Concord public schools, lived at Robbins House, and taught formerly enslaved people to read and write. Garrison also tested the country’s first civil rights act in court by attempting to desegregate a train station waiting area in 1866 — nearly a century before Rosa Parks resisted racial segregation in Alabama. 

Committee members have identified several potential hurdles in their preliminary discussions of the issue, however.  

Concord Public School Committee Chair Alexa Anderson questioned whether the new building could be considered a truly “new school” in need of a new name since the structure will replace existing buildings.  

“There wasn’t this discussion with Willard, with Alcott or with the high school” when those buildings were replaced, Anderson said.  

Committee members also referenced seemingly conflicting legal guidelines about naming policies for new school buildings: Policy on the naming of town property dictates that the responsible board or committee hold an advertised public hearing to name a new town building, while Anderson said the school committee’s lawyer advised her that under Massachusetts General Law, the committee itself is responsible for naming new school buildings. 

“We haven’t gotten this much interest in anything since our mask policy during Covid,” Regional School Committee Chair Tracey Marano said, “[but] I think we have to address our policy first [before] we can entertain any kind of public process.” 

The committee plans to continue its discussion about whether to consider a new name for the school during December meetings. 

“This is such an amazing opportunity for the School Committee and the School Department to show leadership,” Palumbo said.  

“With almost 400 years of history, Concord has never named any public building after a [person] of color. It just seems like such an awesome opportunity to finally do this. We just so hope that the School Committee sees it that way, too.”