SALT LAKE CITY — Long before national tensions flared this summer over statues honoring Civil War figures, a Salt Lake school quietly decided to distance itself from fiery 19th century President Andrew Jackson.
But at a meeting Wednesday to discuss the next steps for deciding a new name for the elementary school in the Fairpark neighborhood, administrators faced questions about the need for a name change in the first place.
"The single biggest thing that he did was in defeating the British, and had he not done that, we would probably still be under a very oppressive tyrannical government," longtime resident Russell Jacobsen said during the meeting at Jackson Elementary School.
Jacobsen called the seventh president of the U.S. instrumental in continued American independence through victories during the War of 1812.
Jackson Elementary Principal Jana Edward said the decision to revisit the school's name started more than a year ago when the school's community council and other parent organizations asked for clarification on who the school was named after. Research showed the school was, in fact, dedicated to Andrew Jackson since it was established in 1892.
On a webpage detailing the school’s request for a name change, Jackson is described as instrumental in the Indian Removal Act and ensuing "Trail of Tears," where thousands of Native Americans were forced to relocate to lands west of the Mississippi River. It also says Jackson's "rags-to-riches" rise to military and political fortune "was accumulated through the buying and selling of slaves."
Edward said feedback from the community showed about 70 percent of 150 respondents favored a name change.
According to the most recent demographic reports, Jackson Elementary School's student body is more than 70 percent Hispanic, 4.5 percent African-American and 2.4 percent Native American. The school is also a dual language program teaching in both English and Spanish.
"I know that naming a school after someone that has inflicted so much pain on communities of color causes a very visceral reaction for people," said Flor Olivo, a parent of two students attending Jackson Elementary.
Olivo said she doesn't feel personally affected by the name, but nevertheless would like to find a name that has a stronger geographic or thematic connection to the Fairpark area, than Andrew Jackson, who has no historic ties to Utah.
Jacobsen, who said he never saw any of the notices to submit feedback on a name change, disputed claims Jackson profited from slaves, saying his wealth was from success as a lawyer litigating debt collections.
Despite those objections, Edward said the time for debating Jackson's legacy and trying to keep him as the namesake of the school had passed.
A history professor contacted by the Deseret News says Jackson stirred emotions when alive.
"Jackson was a very divisive figure, even then," said Gregory Smoak, an associate history professor at the University of Utah and director of the American West Center. Jackson's personal tendency for violence, including duels with political opponents, had made him both revered by his supporters and reviled by his detractors.
Smoak said Jackson's record as a slave owner as well as his significant role in the Indian Removal Act are two of the big issues that people might see as "antithetical" to today's social values.
And while other presidents also owned slaves or enacted other controversial policies, Smoak said, Jackson exists as more of an outlier among American presidents. For example, George Washington was also a slave owner but was seen as more of a uniting figure within his contemporary political setting.
Smoak admitted Jackson is revered by some as a founding figure for the modern Democratic Party and that his political personality was symbolic to some as an icon of American individualism.
"I think that's where people who still look to Jackson, that's what they're still thinking about," Smoak said.
The school's community council will meet again Oct. 12 to continue discussions for a name change. And the principal said community members could email suggestions to the school website.