Don’t count on a name change for Cass Tech High School

Lewis Cass died on on June 17, 1866

Cass Tech High School, Detroit | Ken Coleman

As Americans weigh the future of statues and public institutions that carry names of racists, segregationists and slave owners, there’s renewed interest in one of America’s most noted high schools in Detroit.

Cass Technical High School was named after Lewis Cass, the former Michigan territorial governor, U.S. senator, and U.S. secretary of state. Cass died 154 years ago on June 17, 1866.

While Cass served in high-powered government positions, he was a slave owner and was the architect of the infamous “Trail of Tears” that forced Native Americans from southern states west of the Mississippi River so that whites could grow cotton. The Detroit high school, a Motor City street and a Michigan county was named after him. Additionally, a statue of Lewis Cass sits in the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. 

As far as the school district is concerned, a name change is not on the horizon. Nikolai Vitti, Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) general superintendent, told the Advance that there isn’t an appetite to rename the school where Motown legend Diana Ross, Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin, actress Lily Tomlin and rock star Jack White attended.

“About two years ago when the school board and superintendent discussed school name changes, the school board was not interested in considering a name change for Cass Tech High School,” Vitti said.

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti speaks at the June 11 rally in Detroit | Ken Coleman

Vitti also pointed out that the school district has a school name policy that requires that community stakeholders must agree upon and the school board considers.

“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.”

However, Lamont Satchel Jr., a 17-year-old Cass Tech student, supports the idea of a name change for his school.

“With his cruel history of slave ownership, racial prejudice and bigoted actions, I fully support the renaming of Cass Tech and all other DPSCD schools that bare the name of a harsh and brutal history that continues to plague our nation,” said Satchel.

Lamont Satchel Jr. speaks at the June 11 rally in Detroit | Ken Coleman

Leslie Andrews, Cass Tech Alumni Association president and a 1984 graduate, does not think the school name should change.

“The educational legacy and academic excellence far outweighs the choices of [Lewis Cass],” Andrews said.  

In 1984, the school was honored by the U.S. Department of Education among 262 schools that should “shine as an inspirational model for others.” In 2006, Cass Tech represented the Detroit school district at the National Academic Games Olympics and won its Team Sweepstakes award.

Ken Brown, a 1978 graduate, told the Advance that he didn’t know who Lewis Cass was during his years at the high school. Brown doesn’t support changing the name and said he believes it has brand value.

“But if the majority of people wanted it, I wouldn’t stand in their way,” he added.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.