'Like living inside a Confederate statue': Wheeler High students on why they want to rename school

wheeler high school
Cobb County's Wheeler High School was named after Confederate General Joseph Wheeler in 1965, the same year the school district integrated. (WABE)

Joseph Wheeler Name Change

Students at Wheeler High School in Cobb County have been pushing for the school to be renamed since the summer of 2020. Named after Confederate General Joseph Wheeler, the high school is now one of the most racially diverse schools in the state.

The school board formed a committee in the summer of 2020 to consider the name change, but reversed course a few months later. Students have spoken at every school board meeting since then, pressing board members to take action.

WABE spoke with students in the Wheeler Name Change group and other students who support the effort.  

“I think one thing that is really important to remember is context,” says Wheeler senior Eli Peacock. “The school was named after a Confederate general in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. [It’s a] pretty clearly a signal. The best analogy is: it’s almost like living inside a Confederate statue. It is a monument to a Confederate general that is meant to be a symbol of continued oppression and I think it is long overdue that we change that.”

Some students expressed exasperation with the school board’s reluctance to address the issue.

“It’s just frustrating especially because other schools, like [Atlanta’s] Grady [High School], was renamed,” says junior Simran Patel. “Other schools were able to be renamed and that gave us hope. [Then] they disbanded the committee, and now it’s difficult to even get any progress because they’re not responding to like any of their emails and everything.”

“Not listening to what the students have to say about your educational environment is a clear violation of the point of the board’s existence in my opinion,” says senior Zach Carman. “So it’s frustrating that [the board] would rather not do anything and just kind of hope it dies off than actually address a key part of their job.”

“Compared to a lot of other schools in Cobb County, we’re among one of the most diverse, which makes it even more confusing as to why the board is hesitant to even like changes,” says junior Ewuraba Buckle. “I’m surprised that it was like named after a Confederate general in the first place. [The school was named] back in like the ’60s … so yeah, it’s just frustrating.”

All of the students WABE spoke to said the school’s name doesn’t reflect the school’s diversity and inclusion.

“I feel like the name doesn’t really reflect the school itself because it is pretty open and … when you go to the front lobby there’s all these international flags there so it’s like we’re very inclusive, but our name doesn’t reflect that,” Buckle says.

“I just really enjoy the environment of Wheeler and like the diversity,” says Patel. “There’s so many different organizations like there’s the Black Student Union, there’s ICA, there’s so many different facets of diversity at Wheeler. And I think that just really exemplifies this, like the culture at Wheeler and like how everybody is free to express their culture and their diversity and what makes them them. It’s very nice and it’s very refreshing.”

“The elementary school and the middle school that I went to were relatively non-diverse,” says Carman. “They were relatively majority white students and obviously, as a white student, I never really noticed that disparity until I came into high school. I was introduced to a lot more diverse cultures and opinions and I realized kind of how stunted it felt not having that diversity represented in my prior educational experiences.”

The board asked students to do their research on Wheeler and explain why the name should be changed. They did. In doing so, they discovered Joseph Wheeler didn’t have deep ties to Georgia or Cobb County.

“I’m sure there are hundreds of names that the community can come together with that will be much more representative, will be, honestly, much more powerful,” says Peacock. “I know this has been likely mentioned in interviews in the past, but Joseph Wheeler had nothing to do with Cobb County. He was here for one battle. He was from I think Tennessee, lived in Alabama. This is a random person who our school is named after, purely because of the fact he was a Confederate general, which, to me is crazy.”

Wheeler was living in New York when he died in 1906, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

There are about six weeks left in the school year. Some students, who’ve been working on this issue for almost two years, will graduate soon. They hope to make headway before the year is over.

“I think, currently, we’re at this stagnant point, because the [board hasn’t] responded,” Patel says. “The organization has done all they can. So I’m just hoping for the end of the year that we get some sort of response.”

“We do have about three board members on our side, so we’re just kind of hoping to gain more support so that the initiative can get somewhere and we can see changes in the next year or so,” Buckle says. “I think in the next couple of months that’s our main goal: to get more board members and to continue attending board meetings and reaching out so that we can hear responses.”