Metro

Brookline Town Meeting votes to rename Devotion School

Deborah Brown (center) and Anne Greenwald spoke to reporters Tuesday after Brookline Town Meeting voted to rename the Edward Devotion School.
John Hilliard for the Boston Globe
Deborah Brown (center) and Anne Greenwald spoke to reporters Tuesday after Brookline Town Meeting voted to rename the Edward Devotion School.

BROOKLINE — The Edward Devotion School will no longer honor the memory of a local 18th century benefactor and slave owner after Town Meeting members voted overwhelmingly Tuesday night to rename the school.

The School Committee will have until next spring’s Annual town meeting to propose a new name for the public school once attended by President John F. Kennedy.

Until then, the elementary school on Harvard Street will be called the Coolidge Corner School, named for its neighborhood.

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“No child should have to walk into a school named for someone who enslaved people,” Deborah Brown, a resident who proposed the change, said in an interview. “I would do it again in a heartbeat, because I believe it’s that important.”

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Brown and fellow resident Anne Greenwald worked together for the past several months to bring the name change to a vote at Town Meeting. The article was approved by a vote of 171 in favor, to 19 opposed, with 14 abstention following an emotional debate in the auditorium at Brookline High.

The school, which this year had 801 students enrolled in grades kindergarten to eight, is scheduled to reopen in September following a $120 million renovation.

Brown, who is African-American, and Greenwald, who is white, told the Globe they hope the renaming sparks a continuing discussion about race in Brookline.

“People think there wasn’t slavery in New England, and it wasn’t a big part of the culture here. When they learn about it, it’s a big eye opener,” said Greenwald, whose husband is a math teacher at the school.

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Edward Devotion was born in 1668 and died in 1744. An inventory of his property following his death included “one Negrow,” according to the Brookline Historical Society’s timeline on the school’s naming.

He left money to the town in his will and decreed it be used for a school. In the late 1800s, Brookline built the first school named for Devotion. The current building was erected in 1913.

A School Committee task force will start public meetings with residents, including local students, to discuss what the school’s permanent name should be, said Brown.

A recommendation for a new school name is due for the 2019 Annual Town Meeting next spring.

During about an hour of debate Tuesday night, several speakers said were former Devotion students and parents who opposed the name change because of their fondness for the school.

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Joyce Jozwicki, a Town Meeting member and a former Devotion PTO president, called the name change an “empty gesture.”

She read off a list of place names in Brookline, such as Aspinwall Street, that she said honored slave owners which would remain in place.

“Are we going to erase the honors we have given to people who have done good, but were flawed?” Jozwicki said. “This is a teaching opportunity.”

The renaming effort also had supporters, among them nine-year-old Ada Goldstein, a current student at the school.

She told Town Meeting members about school lessons that taught about the hardships that African-Americans faced during slavery.

“The school should not be named for someone who did not do the right thing,” she said.

Brown is an environmental attorney who has lived in town for almost 18 years. Greenwald’s two children attended the school. They decided to take action after learning last year that the Devotion School was named for a slave owner.

In February, the two combined efforts to strip the slaveowner’s name from the school.

They said many of their friends and neighbors backed their work, and formed a coalition of about 150 people who actively supported removing the name, they said.

The effort to rename the school is also a lesson for Brookline’s students, said Brown.

“They have a voice, they can be brave, they can participate,” Brown said. “And there will be adults that will support them.”

John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com