Committee formed to review Lewis Cass ISD name

Published 11:44 am Thursday, September 24, 2020

CASSOPOLIS — The Lewis Cass Intermediate School District is moving forward with plans to consider a name change for the district.

Superintendent Brent Holcomb recently announced that he has commitments in place to form a committee of eight to nine Cass County residents to consider a name change for the district, which is currently named after Lewis Cass, a former U.S. senator and U.S. Secretary of State. Having lived from 1782 to 1866, Cass 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.

Holcomb hopes the committee can host its first meeting by early next month.

The intent to form a committee was communicated to the Lewis Cass ISD School Board at a July meeting. The decision came after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer removed Lewis Cass’ name from a state office building in June due to evidence of his history as a slave owner and work implementing policies under former President Andrew Jackson that harmed Native Americans.

The decision by both Whitmer and the ISD to consider a change has proven to be controversial.

Some have argued that the policies that Cass supported, such as allowing states to choose whether or not to allow slavery and the relocation of Native Americans, should be considered within the context of their time.

Others have questioned the validity of the claims that Cass was a slave owner, as few records of Cass owning a slave exist. The most frequently cited evidence comes from reports of Willard Carl Klunder, Cass’ biographer, who drew from the territorial governor’s private papers, correspondence and published works. However, a second biography, written by Andrew McLaughlin, asserts that Cass “denounced slavery as a great social and political evil.”

“We can’t erase history, we have to learn history and try to understand it in context,” wrote Cassopolis resident Cathy LaPointe in a letter sent to State Rep. Jon Hoadley. “It looks to me like this action on the part of the governor is reactionary, precipitous and not based on fact.”

While several residents have spoken out against a name change, many have also voiced their support.

“When we know better, we do better,” wrote Dowagiac resident Diane Barrett-Curtis in a letter to Leader Publications. “Our past does not change, but we need to learn from it and re-evaluate those individuals we choose to honor.”

Holcomb said the controversy surrounding the topic has largely not reached him, but that the committee to consider the name change is diverse in thought and will consider all perspectives.

“We are just trying to come together and have a conversation,” he said.

Holcomb said he would support a name that represents the geography of Cass County better, as it used to before the ISD’s 1963 change to honor the former territorial governor. Lewis Cass ISD is currently the only ISD in the state of Michigan named after an individual — the others are named after counties or geographical areas.

No matter which direction the committee chooses to go in, Holcomb hopes to have a proposed name change to present to the school board by December or January.

“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “I can’t predict how it is going to go, but we will see.”