When photos of Dylann Roof posing with a Confederate flag emerged shortly after Roof’s June massacre of nine African-Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, several Southern states took steps to remove the flag from state grounds, or, in Mississippi’s case, the state flag. There were also calls across the South to take down the statues of Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, and to rename the countless schools and other government buildings named for them. In Houston, the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board launched a campaign to change the name of Dowling Street in the Third Ward, named after Confederate officer Richard W. Dowling, who repelled an attempted invasion of Texas by Union gunboats in 1863 at the Battle of Sabine Pass, thus preventing the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation.
But the street isn’t the only thing to bear Dowling’s name in Houston—in 1968, well over a century after the Civil war Ended, HISD opened a new junior high school in Five Corners and named it in honor of Dowling. For the past three years, since well before the Charleston shootings, the South Houston Concerned Citizens Coalition has been trying to get HISD to change the school’s name—so far, without success.
When the school was founded, Five Corners was a majority-white neighborhood and Dowling was a majority-white school. But times change: today, Dowling Middle School is about 60 percent Hispanic and 40 percent African-American. “We just feel like the name is a slap in the face, that HISD would name a school after a Confederate soldier,” said Linda Scurlock, the SHCCC’s president. “I could understand keeping the name of some of these schools that have been open for a long time, like Jeff Davis [High School], but Dowling was named in 1968, in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement.”
One of the founders of SHCCC was Vivian Harris, now the constituent liaison for special projects in the office of Council Member Larry Green. It wasn’t until a few years ago that she learned who Dowling Middle School was named for. “I was appalled,” she said. “In this day and age, I see no reason to give reverence to anyone who has hurt people.”
Plans to erect a new building for Dowling have been on the HISD’s drawing board since 2012. Although frequently delayed, groundbreaking for the new structure is scheduled to begin later this year. When the new building finally opens, the SHCCC wants a new name to be on it—that of beloved James Madison High School principal Carrie McAfee, the first African-American woman principal in Houston, who died in 2006. Three of Harris’s children were students under McAfee, whom everyone called “Marlin Mama,” after the school’s mascot. “She was a person you could talk to, be comfortable with, and she cared about the education of the children at Madison,” Harris remembered.
SHCCC president Scurlock, who attended Worthing High School in Sunnyside, remembers being curious as a teenager about the school’s namesake, Evan Edward Worthing, a white real estate developer who established a scholarship for African-American HISD students. “The name matters to people who go to the school,” she said, in explanation for why she was pushing so hard for the Dowling name change. “It matters to people who live out here. It matters that students who attend the school know something about the person for whom the school is named.”