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McKeesport changes school's name after historical concerns raised

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By Jennifer R. Vertullo
Friday, March 22, 2013, 4:56 a.m.
 

McKeesport Area School District is naming its new elementary/intermediate school for the confluence that frames the city, rather than the family who settled there.

During a special meeting on Thursday afternoon, school directors chose Twin Rivers Primary/Intermediate School to replace the John McKee name they accepted last week.

“The opening of the new school in McKeesport represents a time of celebration for the community as well as the district,” board president Patricia Maksin said. “While intended to be reflective of our past, naming the new school after the founder of McKeesport has drawn a considerable amount of unexpected concern among partnering community agencies in the district.”

Because historical references have been brought to light, Maksin explained, community members requested that the district reconsider the school's name.

While district officials did not speak directly about those references, they alluded to a flier and series of emails distributed by Keith Murphy of the McKeesport Political American African Committee.

Murphy's correspondence identifies McKee as a slave owner during the late 1700s, a period when many Pennsylvania landowners still kept slaves. The mailing also made unsubstantiated, defamatory remarks about McKee's “probable” interaction with his slaves.

Murphy, a listed member of the district's diversity committee, did not oppose the John McKee name until after the board's vote last week. The board had engaged the diversity committee and other groups when seeking a name that would satisfy the community as a whole.

Although Murphy did not attend Thursday's meeting, several concerned black residents and McKeesport Area graduates were present to learn of the name change.

“I had serious issues with (the previous name) based on the fact that John McKee was a slave holder,” said Mysty Conway, a 1994 McKeesport Area graduate who now lives in neighboring North Versailles Township. “The majority of the students there will be African American or bi-racial, and the issue wasn't sitting well with me.”

Murphy's opposition surfaced in a district that has long maintained buildings named for national historic figures who were active in a time period when landowners kept slaves. George Washington Elementary is named for the nation's first president. Founders Hall Middle School makes reference to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, with nearby streets that share their names.

Thursday's vote was split 5-2, with Maksin, Mary Jane Keller, Terri Kisan, Tom Maglicco and Trisha Gadson in favor, and Chris Halaszynski and Steve Kondrosky dissenting. Vice president Joe Lopretto and Mark Holtzman were absent.

Halaszynski and Kondrosky said they voted against Twin Rivers because they wanted McKeesport to be a focal point of the school's identity.

“Many times I have asked if we could call it McKeesport Primary/Intermediate,” Halaszynski said. “That was my selection, my choice.”

While the city is a port along the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers, Halaszynski said the Twin Rivers name isn't unique to McKeesport because many Mon Valley communities are served by a council of governments that bears the same name.

Attendees who wanted John McKee's name removed also are dissatisfied with the Twin Rivers name, which they believe is nondescript of the school's McKeesport site.

With the name change completed, Maksin said, the focus from Thursday's meeting forward will be “solely on continuing the preparations necessary to provide the highest quality educational experience for all children within the McKeesport Area School District.”

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or jvertullo@tribweb.com.

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