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When Davontae White-Sledge began his freshman year at Patrick Henry High, he had never heard of the building's namesake. The first time he wore the north Minneapolis school's red and gray football uniform, one of his classmates told him all he wanted to know.

"I heard he was a slave owner," White-Sledge said in an interview. "That threw me off right away."

Now a senior, White-Sledge is part of a group tasked with finding a new moniker for the North Side high school. On Tuesday, Minneapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox officially recommended the school board name the building after the neighborhood where it's located and call it Camden High starting next fall.

If the board approves the new name Dec. 12, the renaming committee will then discuss whether to adopt a new mascot and new school colors.

For White-Sledge and classmate Jeremie Niyonkuru, the campaign to find a new name for Henry High doubles as an opportunity for the school to stake a claim on its identity. Much of Minneapolis looks down on the school, the teens say.

"Obviously, we want the school to be known for education because we want everybody to get their education," Niyonkuru said.

But he also wants the school's robotics team and its athletic programs to get a share of the spotlight.

"The things we do at Henry are overlooked," Niyonkuru said. "Nobody cares about us."

White-Sledge and Niyonkuru say they wanted to give Henry High a name the community could rally around. Henry was a prominent Revolutionary War-era politician. He served as the first governor of Virginia and is largely credited with coining the motto, "Give me liberty or give me death."

But in addition to the fact that its current namesake enslaved people throughout his adult life, there's no evidence Patrick Henry ever set foot in Minnesota.

"He definitely didn't come to Minneapolis, much less north Minneapolis," White-Sledge said.

Patrick Henry students entered the north Minneapolis school on Wednesday.
Patrick Henry students entered the north Minneapolis school on Wednesday.

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

That disconnect was enough for the teens to volunteer when school leaders asked them to be part of the renaming committee. Arielle Rocca, a former Henry High science teacher who advised student committee members throughout the process, told the school board the renaming project also presented several learning opportunities.

She briefed board members on the renaming committee's work Tuesday, along with Niyonkuru and White-Sledge.

Committee members had to field nominations and set criteria for submitted names. The committee decided someone who is still alive couldn't be nominated for the school name, and anyone nominated needed to have some connection to the community.

"You can't just have LeBron James High School," Niyonkuru told the school board.

To that end, Rocca said students labored intensively to research subjects and make sure they fit the community's values, searching historical records and scouring through newspaper clippings.

"We focused a lot of our time on finding reliable sources," she said.

The renaming committee received 324 nominations. Nearly 1,000 people voted in the first round in April and May, from community members and alumni to district educators and Olson Middle School students. The committee held grade-level assemblies at Henry High to capture as many current students as possible.

A second vote helped the committee whittle nominations down to three. The group eventually forwarded two of them to the district's interim leader: Victory and Camden.

But if White-Sledge and Niyonkuru had their way, the third, most popular option would have prevailed in the contest: Prince Roger Henry High.

Unfortunately, Principal Liza Anderson Schmid told the school board, the legendary musician's estate didn't respond to the renaming committee in time. Still, December's vote may fully close a chapter at Henry High that began in 2018 when Yusuf Abdullah led the school.

He's now an associate superintendent for the district and recalls tense meetings where alumni and community members mounted campaigns against Henry High's renaming.

"From the outside, there didn't seem to be as much pushback this time around," Abdullah said. "The sentiment is a little different now than it was in 2018."

Abdullah felt the process come full circle when his daughter told him she cast a ballot in the first renaming vote. For White-Sledge and Niyonkuru, renaming Henry High is an opportunity to better represent their slice of north Minneapolis.

As varsity football players who have worn Patrick Henry's name on their jerseys, they say the school's moniker should be reflective of its values.

"When we rep our chest with something, it should be something we feel proud of wearing in the community," White-Sledge said.