Lewis Cass ISD considers name change

CASSOPOLIS — The Lewis Cass Intermediate School District is reconsidering its namesake.

At a board meeting Wednesday, the Lewis Cass ISD Board, which provides services to Cass County’s school districts in Cassopolis, Dowagiac, Edwardsburg and Marcellus, decided to form a committee to evaluate the district’s name, which honors former governor of the Michigan territory Lewis Cass. The committee will seek input about whether the name should be changed and what it would be changed to.

“For us, I would say it’s not a name and a history that we have celebrated in the past, but it has been a part of our history for a long time,” said Kevin Anderson, president of the board. “But some of the governor’s information certainly brings to light that we should have a conversation about our name and, as we learn more about the historical pieces, if that is something we should be looking at further. … What this does is show that we are willing to change that name, with the committee’s review and the community’s review.”

The decision comes after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer removed Lewis Cass’ name from a state office building late last month due to his history as a slave owner and work implementing policies under former President Andrew Jackson that harmed Native Americans.

Lewis Cass’ name is strewn across Michigan, with rivers and roadways named after him. Notably, the county of Cass, along with its county seat, Cassopolis, is also named after the politician.

A Democrat having lived from 1782 to 1866, Lewis Cass is a former U.S. senator and U.S. Secretary of State. He was Secretary of War under former President Jackson and governor of the Michigan territory before it became a state. He ran for president in 1848.

As secretary of war, Lewis Cass was in charge of implementing the Indian Removal Act, which began the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands in what became known as the “trail of tears.”

Lewis Cass ISD was named to honor Lewis Cass in 1963. The district’s website notes that “most of the social, industrial and political development [of the Michigan territory] can be traced back to the work of Lewis Cass.” The website also notes the 56 years Cass spent as a statesman and diplomat.

“In the same fine tradition of its namesake, the Lewis Cass Intermediate Board of Education desires to contribute to all children’s social and educational progress,” the website reads.

Despite the district’s history of honoring Lewis Cass, several members of the ISD board agreed that it is time to reevaluate the district’s name.

“While [the name] may have seemed appropriate in the past, the circumstances today is something that calls it into question,” said Superintendent Brent Holcomb. “It would seem appropriate to revert to the county name.”

According to Holcomb, Lewis Cass ISD is the only ISD in the state named after an individual. Most ISDs are named after the county or region in which they are located.

Several ideas for a name change were tossed around during Wednesday’s meeting from renaming the ISD to reflect the county to naming it after the Michigan wolverine. Ultimately, the board decided to form a committee of eight to 10 individuals to evaluate the potential name change. Board president Anderson said the committee should feature community members, ISD parents, board members and representatives from communities who were hurt by Lewis Cass’ historical policies, such as the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians.

“I like the idea of the committee because, as an intermediate school district, we are a service provider,” said board member Heather Zile. “I think it is important that we involve the community to identify what is relevant to them and a good representation of that. It may simply be geographical, but I think it is always worth asking.”

Present during the meeting was Julie Dye, a Pokagon citizen. She said she was glad to hear the ISD was reconsidering its name as a tribute to Lewis Cass.

“This is such a critical, crucial turning point in our country’s history,” Dye said. “As an individual, I am disgusted every time I drive by the Dailey Road facility and read the sign out front because I know what his name means to me. I am also ashamed that my tax dollars are celebrating this man who is responsible for the forced removal and the death of my people. … I sincerely hope the board is moving away from celebrating this man and changing the name. He is not everybody’s hero.”

Board president Anderson said the process of a potential name change for the ISD would take time to do appropriately, but asked Holcomb to give the board an update about the committee at its meeting next month.

“I would agree that it would be good to have things done by the end of the year, but if we are going to ask the committee to do something, we need to have appropriate timelines for them,” Anderson said.

Holcomb said he believed forming a committee is a move in the right direction.

“I appreciate that our board has taken a leadership role on this, and you can tell they are very open to a name change,” Holcomb said. “The hard part is, now what? What is the name change to?”

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