Detroit’s Cass Tech was named for a slave owner. Should this name change too?

Cass Technical High School, Detroit's most famous high school, has more than 2,300 students and 80,000 living alumni across the globe. (Courtesy photo)

Everybody in the city of Detroit has heard of Cass Technical High School or knows someone who yells “CT” in public. The school has 113 years of reputation behind it. Thanks to being the first magnet school in the city, students and alum from all over, east side and west side, wear the forest green and white as if they were the city’s official colors. 

It’s a school that many of the city’s well known attended. People like Diana Ross, Big Sean, Regina Carter, Jack White, Lily Tomlin, John DeLorean and even one of my favorite sports writers, Terry Foster, are Cass Tech alumni. My own mom, bless her heart, graduated from Cass in 1979. And since the 1970s, the non-neighborhood school, which admits students based on test scores and grades, has been a predominantly Black school and a source of pride for thousands of Black Detroiters. 

 

This school has more than 80,000 living alumni across the globe, more than 2,300 current students, and it is the most famous high school in Detroit, much to the chagrin of folks who attended Renaissance, Mumford or old-schoolers who went to Finney, Denby or Northern. 

Cass is an institution. Despite the recent demolition of its former building that stood for 90 years and a litany of issues with the new school, Cass Tech stands proud as ever.

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that I did not go to Cass Tech and that fact may cause this reader to question my input. I didn’t even go to a Detroit Public School. My parents sent me to the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, an all boys’ Catholic school. Yet, the protests against police brutality and systemic racism that have been going on for weeks now have stirred up many familiar conversations about race and this country’s troubling history. 

And right on cue, the debate over removing statues and monuments of racist historical figures has reignited. Just last week, the city of Detroit removed a bust of Christopher Columbus that had been in the city since 1910. That familiar discussion has moved to another Detroit pillar: Cass Technical High School, established in 1907 and originally named for Lewis Cass.

Lewis Cass was the second territorial governor of Michigan, a U.S. senator and the U.S. Secretary of State. But most importantly, for this discussion, Lewis Cass was a slave owner who enforced the “Indian Removal Act” which paved the way for the Trail of Tears. Cass was also President Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War. 

Cass’ slave-owning history has created much recent online debate and the use of his name isn’t limited to the high school. Cass also has a street in Detroit, a statue in Washington, D.C., a Michigan village (Cass City) and counties in Michigan and Indiana named after him, for starters. 

In the 2000s, a group of Detroiters, led by former City Council member JoAnn Watson tried to change the name of the school. Local historian Jamon Jordan was among this group and argued then, and still believes, that a predominantly Black school shouldn’t be named after a slave owner. 

“I believe [the name] should be changed. There is no self-respecting Jewish person who would have their school named after a Nazi,” Jordan said. 

Detroit is the Blackest city in America, with the highest percentage of Black residents of any city with at least 100,000 people. The school itself has been predominantly Black since the 1970s. 

“I’m not telling everybody that we need to close every single school named after slave owners,” Jordan said. “I’m saying Black people shouldn’t go to or be forced to go to schools named after slave owners.”

Jordan says when he and others tried to get the name to change, there was little attention given to them and that one institution stood against them more than any other entity: The Cass Tech Alumni Association. 

The group is an active national network of people who worked to defeat the proposal, according to Jordan.  

Today, some say they have created an alternative history for the school and the name is no longer related to Lewis Cass, the man, according to Vicki Green, an English teacher who has worked at Cass Tech for 22 years.  

“You’ll meet people all over the world who know Cass Tech and the legacy that Cass has, and that has absolutely nothing to do with the guy it was originally named after,” Green said. 

Green, like many people with a deep connection to the school, are against changing the school’s name. She tells her ninth-grade students about Lewis Cass each year, but many of them say they hadn’t heard of him before.

Leslie Graham Andrews, president of the Cass Tech Alumni Association, says changing the name of the high school isn’t the right move for the alumni, students or the city of Detroit. (Courtesy photo)

Before I say his name, I explain that he was a slave owner, one of the first governors of Michigan, he fought the Native Americans,” Green said. “Then the students are normally like ‘Oh, OK.’ I say to them, ‘None of you know who this is?’ And then I tell them ‘This is Lewis Cass.’ They are always shocked.” 

Leslie Graham Andrews, president of the Cass Tech Alumni Association, agrees with Green and says changing the name isn’t the right move for the alumni, students or the city. 

“If they come after the school’s name, does that mean we need to change the street name too? Does that mean we have to change the name of things like Dequindre and Beaubien or Jefferson? If Cass Tech has to change, it all needs to change. Otherwise, the whole discussion needs to end,” Graham Andrews said. 

Andrews raises a point. Given this country’s history, and its investment in honoring slaveholding white men, what is accomplished by removing one or two statues? 

Given that Andrews graduated from Cass Tech in 1984, I thought the debate might be rooted in generational differences but recent graduates of the school share her point of view. 

Deon Mixon graduated from Cass Tech in 2013. Mixon reached out via email after I asked my Facebook network for their opinions. Mixon is opposed to the name change but says he can see why some people feel the way they do.

“I’m not discrediting the notion, but in one light, speaking for myself, I don’t care. Today, Lewis Cass doesn’t represent Cass Tech (the students and later Black students who’ve created its reputation of excellence over the years),” Mixon wrote in the email. “I don’t know why and who named this school after him. I would guess some white people, as whites mainly dominated the city during the early 1900s.” 

Mixon’s response mirrored many of the answers I received. A lot of the alums simply don’t care about Lewis Cass. 

“Whatever is done regarding Lewis Cass, be my guest. My high school identity will remain as a Cass Technician because, again, for me, Lewis Cass does not represent Cass Tech. The students who contributed to its excellence do,” he said. 

Green proposed making the name into an acronym, C.A.S.S. Tech, which would stand for Capable and Successful Scholars. 

If someone did want to adopt this acronym or change the name entirely, they’d have to go through the alumni association and the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Chrystal Wilson, the assistant superintendent of communications and marketing with DPSCD, says about two years ago the school board and Superintendent discussed school name changes but the board wasn’t interested in considering a change for Cass Tech. 

“Since that time the school board created and passed a school name change policy and it has not been used by stakeholders to initiate a name change for Cass Tech High School,” Wilson said.  “At the time of the discussion, the overwhelming sense among the School Board was that despite the negative history of the school’s namesake generations of Cass Tech alumni have developed a different history associated with the ‘Cass Tech’ name and have strong feelings against changing the name, including board member [Corletta] Vaughn who is an alumnus of the school.”

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Comments

duane
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 12:13am

Growing up in Wayne County, Cass Tech had the reputation of a school where students succeeded on their own merits, they did the work, they studied to learn, and made Cass Tech a citadel of academic success. Until this article I never knew about the name sake of the school, I have no more interested in him now then I did before.

If the students and faculty were the ones who created the reputation of Cass Tech why demean their work, for something that a person detached from them by more than a hundred years and a culture away did, and had nothing to do with what the name Cass Tech came to mean. Changing the name will have nothing to do with long dead Lewis Cass, but it will have all to do with tearing down the reputation of what people did over more 50 years and the legacy they left for their family and the community.

The name Cass Tech is what the students and teachers did their not some long dead guy.

Change is Good
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 2:35pm

I have no problem changing all the names:
Jefferson Ave: River Shore Avenue
Cass Tech: Tech High
Wayne County: Detroit County
Woodward Avenue: Traverse Avenue
Washington DC: Federal City

We don't need to glorify racists or anyone else. Everyone is flawed. Keep all the names neutral or name things after all the beautiful things in nature, like Oak Grove, or concepts, like Independence, Freedom, Liberty, Inspiration, Constitution, Justice, Equality.

duane
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 10:11pm

Change,
Have you considered that not all change is good, that in the case of what students and teachers they were creating educational change in individuals and by changing the name that is undermining their work for change and the nature of they changes they created?
If Cass Tech has a reputation of academic success, by trashing the name are diminishing the importance of what was done their?
For me my career was in a culture of change, my employer was built on change, but change always had to be justified by the value it would create before it was made part of the organization. In that way when change happened it was a permanent change, and it was change that lead our peers rather than followed.

middle of the mit
Fri, 06/26/2020 - 10:22pm

duane,

First, are you equating the name of a building to the teachers and students that inhabit and learn there. If that is the case, WE need to STOP naming things after people and go back to naming them after their geography. And if you want to go down that road................

Then why demonize Benedict Arnold? He was an American General, after he was a Constitutional warrior, and then a traitor. But who was he a traitor to? The crown or the United States? You report.......WE decide.

Why does the party of Lincoln defend the flag of General Lee?

Should America have a statue to King George? He is part of OUR Heritage.

How would you like it if America put up statues to people that enslaved and killed YOUR FAMILY MEMBERS?

You wouldn't think that was OK............ would you?

The Lord says....when a man asks you to walk a mile in his shoes.............walk two miles.

duane
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 11:25pm

middle,
The article is about changing the name of Cass Tech high school because of what Cass was reported to do. My comment was the reputation of the school, the brand, was created by the efforts and successes of the teachers and students, so I discourage changing the name because it would be rejection of the students and teachers successes. I feel that we should encourage academic success and any opportunity.

middle of the mit
Mon, 06/29/2020 - 9:52pm

How can you attribute the success of students and teachers to a schools name at all? Isn't it the people who make up the institution and the students that learn there not the name of the school?

Why would any successful student be denied a place because the name of the institution had changed? Doesn't take away from the teachers. Doesn't take away from what the students learned or their experience or success at all.

Why not call it Wayne County Tech?

Again, why does the party of Lincoln defend the flag of General Lee? Should we have a statue of King George?

duane
Wed, 07/01/2020 - 10:13am

middle,
It is branding, people and in this case student/teacher create the brand [the reputation] and just like a product or organization, it is the perception people create in their own minds that establish the brand. For me, as I have mentioned, it is about students and teacher doing the work/making the sacrifice to learn. Change the name and that brand in my mind disappears and the one well established icon of Detroit academic success, the icon of the capability/hope for learning in Detroit is lost, there is no longer any things to show Detroit can succeed.

Get over it
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 3:30pm

We hope most people have bigger more expansive minds. It's no longer Cobo Hall. We still have a great Auto Show, well most years anyway.

Anonymous
Thu, 07/16/2020 - 12:02pm

Guess it's okay if corporations buy naming rights to places we built with our tax dollars.

Anonymous
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 9:12am

Just call it "Tech High", Detroit Technological High School. People can still say they went to "Tech".

sarroth
Wed, 07/01/2020 - 1:39pm

Actuslly people attribute the name to success all the time. If indeed people hear the name Cass Tech and think excellence, changing the name to say, Tech High, will have future employers thinking 'What's this Tech High place? Whatever' and just wouldn't have the same impact. Name recognition is important.

I'm not saying keep the name, but you do need to understand the importance of name recognition and the damage to a brand - that alumni benefit from - is done when the name is changed and is no longer instantly recognizable.

Absolutely consider changing names, just understand the consequences before you do.

LOL
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 3:33pm

If it's such a hard change for you, call it "Cast Tech", like a die cast! Nobody would probably even notice the change! Geez

Progressive Change
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 3:35pm

So changing the name from Cass Tech to Detroit Tech would diminish the importance of all the alumni? I completely disagree. Everyone should also keep in mind that none of the amazing alumni of any school is without sin.

duane
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 11:39pm

We hear from another holier than thou person or is a god. I guess when all you look for is the bad so all you will find is the bad.

The reality is that we see what we are looking for to the exclusion of most other things. We as humans tend to strive to meet expectations and continue to do what we get reinforced. Progressive Change only expects disappointment from people [sees only their sin] so he only reinforces what will disappoint so we should expect nothing good from those who listen to him.

I have met too many people that have reached out with a helping hand for others, who have spoken out against the mistreatment of others, that have lifted themselves and been their for family and friends, I have seen good done by some of the most vilified that I can't see what they have done in the past for I know tomorrow will be a better for what they do.

I can't say whether what others have done is a sin for that is between that person and their God, for here we have laws to manage our society's functioning and sin is not something we use in that management of our society..

Anonymous
Thu, 07/16/2020 - 12:10pm

Slavery, indentured servitude have been around since the dawn of man and still exists today, usually as a way to pay back a debt. It's heinous and inhuman in and of itself. American slavery made it worse with generational slavery, no way out, a slave forever, you and all your descendants owned by others, like we treat animals. Sorry, but I won't wait for "God" to judge that and neither should anyone else. "Branding" is a strange argument to keep the name. You do know slaves were "branded", right?

Gene Davis
Mon, 06/29/2020 - 5:05am

Where is Cass Tech in here?

Kevin Grand
Mon, 06/29/2020 - 7:22pm

Those are the average test scores for Detroit as a whole.

Unless you consider having only 5% of your student body proficient in math and 6% proficient in reading as less important than the name on the side of a building?

There are FAR MORE important items to be addressing at this time.

Anonymous
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 3:45pm

So you're admitting your post is irrelevant?

Kevin Grand
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 7:20pm

No, I'm just pointing out that the actions of the protestors are wasted on superfluous issues which are designed to only garner headlines, but never result in anything significant occurring in the end.

Anonymous
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 3:42pm

How magnanimous, but irrelevant of you. These matters are long overdue to this generation, regardless of race.

Le Roy G. Barnett
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 9:32am

Don't forget Cassopolis in Cass County.

Scott Roelofs
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 10:10am

Informative article. The "cancel" culture seems to be running amok, but some sensible people in Detroit are not buying into it.
Unrelated to the article subject, I am curious about one thing; why did author Huffman capitalize all references to (B)lack schools, people, etc., but did not capitalize references to (w)hites. Are not all races equal? I would be interested in the rationale.

Joyce Irvin Harris
Mon, 06/29/2020 - 2:12am

Caucasian, the proper name for the white race, has always been capitalized. According to the most recent AP style manual, because Black is the current name for people whose roots are African, the capitalization is correct.

Jake K
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 10:46am

Let's be careful here. Coleman Young certainly carried racism to a new level by establishing the "us and the man" attitude throughout Detroit and the suburbs. The consequences still exist today. Do we also undo the effects of "reverse" racism? During my college years most dorms had a Black Culture Room and other areas specifically set aside for Black students. Students not of color or of other cultures had no such assignments...because it would have been racist. Left hand, right hand.

middle of the mit
Mon, 06/29/2020 - 9:56pm

Most of what you complain about is because blacks weren't allowed to be included. Then you complain when they start their own groups because you wouldn't allow them to join yours.

Enough reverse jokes
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 3:47pm

Jake, I don't recall Young owning slaves or lynching anyone.

William C. Plumpe
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 11:48am

Hmmmm.
It's a fine line but sometimes you have to split hairs.
Cass was a slave owner but so were
Washington and Jefferson
and many other Founding Fathers.
Should we pull down their statues too?
Confederate leaders fought to preserve slavery, committed treason and lost the bloodiest and most devastating war in
US history. From a viewpoint of the
degree of wrong and damage done the Confederay's sins are closer in time and much more egregious than those of
Cass. The scope of those sins is much greater too since Cass was one man and the Confederacy was an entire nation.
Cass can continue to be honored because his sins were much less in
value and scope and the School he is named after is a model of acheivement for all alumnae and Detroiters everywhere. There is no such positive legacy for the Confederacy.

Robert Honeyman
Fri, 06/26/2020 - 9:38am

I'm an alum. I'm indifferent. We as a society have never understood, have never addressed our racist superego. Although changing names is not the answer to the larger problem, if it aids in moving the conversation in a direction that will confront our racist present, I'm all for it.

duane
Fri, 06/26/2020 - 1:17pm

William,

It is disappointing that the context of time and culture are ignore. The reality is that those founding fathers over 200 years ago created a nation and structure that facilitate the changes that have driven the cultural changes that we need today, and yet all we hear is about tearing that history down so we have no history to learn from.

I am surprised that you seem to see no value that the symbol of Cass Tech projects, or that students will only see that the name and the brand it projects is wrong and should be trashed as the name of the school is trashed.
If nothing else the Cass Tech brand has always conjured the expectation that the students that attend Cass Tech are those who are making the sacrifice necessary to learn, to achieve academic success. With a new name what would be the new expectations for students and why, it surely won't be based on a history of success.

middle of the mit
Mon, 06/29/2020 - 10:11pm

duane,
I am not for taking down statues of our Founding Fathers, even given the hypocritical nature of their ideals. It is sad that it has taken over 200 years, a civil war over 100 years ago, Jim Crow laws that arguably still exist and a civil rights bill that conservatives in the South still don't want to adhere to to get to this point, and now police reform that they don't want either.

But I can't understand why you still think all the success should belong to a building. It is the community that paid for the instructors, those that went to and achieved the success. The name of the school had nothing to do with it..........unless it is an exclusive school and only lets in the best of the best. And that is different than being the best school. You are picking and choosing your own ratings.

And then you bring in "Brand names". Do you really think the best of the best come from Haaavaaad? Yaaale?

And why would the standards of a school change because of the name?

This is the most simplistic thinking I think I have ever heard.

duane
Thu, 07/02/2020 - 10:00am

middle,
There are a couple of things you don't seem to value, brand [reputation] and the individuals.
The reputation of an organization/program/individual is based on the past [we all look at what happened before and allow that to establish the expectations to the future] and we make decisions on those expectations. And once we have made a decision individuals work to make their decisions be correct.
You mention Harvard and Yale, there reputations are based on what the students and teachers [including with their research] have done/achieved, and that cause people to expect that to success for those who replace the current students/teachers to continue. The the best of the best may or may not come from Harvard, but the reputation of Harvard/MIT/Yale/Stanford are more likely to get the best of the best considering those schools based on the brands. If a high school student receive a letter of encouragement to enroll from Harvard or one of their peers that suggests to the student they could be one of those Harvard or Ivy League successes. It has nothing to do with who or what John Harvard or Elihu Yale did over 400 years ago, it is what they have heard about in their young life.
If a student or teacher joins a school such as Cass Tech they have and expectation that they will work to achieve. In the case of a student at Harvard they expect to have part of that reputation be carried by them if they become and alum so they will work to fulfill their expectations it isn't the facility but it does have much with the brand that organization. For in most cases the brand has been developed over a long period of time to trash the icon/name/brand in a single move of changing the name to something that has no proven history is to throw away the brand and all the expectations that go with it. Whether it is Cass Tech/Harvard/Coke/Lincoln even Wayne State Univ [well Wayne State may benefit from having a name change and creating a blank page for the schools reputation].
You seem to discount branding rather easily, it makes me wonder if you ever consider why companies work so hard to protect their brands, spend so much to protect their brands. The reputation [brand] is the history and creates the future expectations and influences people, consider what you use when making a decision about a purchase of a service/product, a decision about an organization, about another person [you and I have had many conversations here on Bridge, I suspect you feel that I have create a reputation with my writings/comments and you attach it to my name on Bridge, duane, and when you see that it raises and expectation of what you expect to read, why don't you believe that people do that with the name of a school, an agency, a program, company. Growing up in Wayne county Cass Tech develop a reputation of academic excellence, a reputation of the students who attended their could academically succeed at any high school in Michigan, that 'African Americans' had the same capacity for academic success as any people in Michigan. Remove the Cass Tech name/brand and the whole of the historic reputation is wiped away, forgotten, and all that time and effort will have to be reinvest to build the brand with a new school name.

Anonymous
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 3:45pm

duane, all on the backs of slaves. Unacceptable. Period. New era.

Mortal sins
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 3:50pm

William, yes, take them all down. They founded this country on lies, our original sin. Compare the shame of losing your monument after your death to a life of slavery, followed by the slavery of all your offspring for generations.

Jennifer G
Fri, 06/26/2020 - 8:39pm

Very well put together article. I'm sure most people weren't aware of the schools namesake and won't change their opinion-good or bad- based on this, but it does bring to the forefront in a different perspective, the problem we are facing nationwide. We can't change history and to recognize only "good" history does a disservice to the building of America. We have grown more from our mistakes than our successes. The men associated with slave ownership who have been the targets of recent defacing and removal of their likenesses, removal of their names from towns, buildings, and parks contributed more to this county than just owning slaves. If we were all judged and remembered for our worst act where would we be as a society?

We are going to get to the point where it's all or nothing on this naming thing before we realize what damage we have done to our country. How many towns will be renamed? Rivers? Schools? Parks? Will sir names need to be changed so people of color aren't offended if Mr. Jefferson is their boss? Come on people, time to speak up to the radicals.

Change All the Names
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 3:58pm

You might be surprised that many of us find your views radical. We really need to do a much better job teaching history and learning from it. I bet you have a lot to learn as the rest of us. Most people don't even know Cass Corridor was also named after this slaveholder. Many Black Detroiter find the new "Midtown" name offensive, preferring to keep the name "Cass Corridor". When you fail to study history, you are doomed to repeat it. It's going to be a long hot summer.

Craig Reynolds
Sun, 07/05/2020 - 9:00pm

Well, actually, the new "Midtown" encompasses the New Center, the Cultural Center, and much of the Cass Corridor. For those us us who lived some of the history in this area, we see the name "Midtown" as attempting to subsume the special character that defined each of these areas and we are none too happy with this cheap appellative marketing ploy.

Agreed
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 3:49pm

That's a whole other valid subject that has nothing to do with keeping the slaveholder name for the neighborhood.

Tom Bennett
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 6:17pm

Renaming buildings and removing statues does not change a thing about the past - it only attempts to remove it. There is not a nation or society in existence without mistakes in their past. However, if the past is successfully removed, look for mistakes to increase in the future.

This movement to attack any facet of our nation and history that is not perfect by contemporary standards is nothing more than actual, flagrant Marxism, masquerading as morality - and these agendas are usually being pushed by people who know absolutely nothing about history themselves.

Case in point - the co-founders of Black Lives Matter declaring that they themselves are Marxists....Karl Marx was a well known racist. One is not a "racist" if one simply refuses to cower to the erasing of the nation's history, and most people advancing this agenda care little to nothing about history or any lives - they just want power.

No Red Herring
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 4:03pm

It's not about erasing the past, it's about preserving the truth without glorifying the heinous crimes against humanity. We don't have monuments to Hitler. We don't name buildings after him. Yet we still study what he did.

Craig Reynolds
Sun, 07/05/2020 - 8:42pm

"Caucasian" is NOT a "proper name" for "the white race" - first, the dictionary definition: Anthropology. (no longer in technical use) of, relating to, or characteristic of one of the traditional racial divisions of humankind, marked by fair to dark skin, straight to tightly curled hair, and light to very dark eyes, and originally inhabiting Europe, parts of North Africa, western Asia, and India. Then the history of the word, from its invention to its diminishing use: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caucasian_race On various printed forms, I may have to check only one box regarding "Race" but when asked about my "race" I respond polyethnic or mongrelized West European, or simply "colorless".

Joe C
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 2:29pm

Good article. I think the Detroit Public Schools Board policy linked from the story is a very fitting approach to this question in that it takes input from stakeholders of the actual school involved. I think their voices are much more important than mine or any of the other voices outside these communities, so I won't weigh in with an opinion on the name. I would agree that when I hear Cass Tech, my thoughts run to the quality of the school and the success of its students; I (ironically?) do not associate the name with the person the school is named after.

United States
Tue, 07/14/2020 - 4:17pm

I don't live in DC and I'm not Native American, but I hate the name "Redskins". Everyone should have a say and everyone should be a better listener.

Anonymous
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 9:09am

The thing about censorship is that no one knows what was considered offensive that triggered the censorship when their posts are merely blocked. Perhaps the censors should literally redact comments for instructive value. In this age of political correctness and cancel culture. it would be helpful to learn what is considered offensive, rather than just subjectively ban opposing opinions. Add editorial response or let other commenters respond with the aim to educate.