Amid policy considerations and the threat of legal action, Manatee’s school board decided to wait six months before they vote on changing the name of North River High School, slated to open in August 2019, which would have opened the possibility of renaming it to Parrish High School — a goal of many residents.
At the Aug. 14 board meeting, vice-chair Gina Messenger made a motion to reconsider the school’s name. More than 1,300 people had signed a petition online and in person to support the new name.
The meeting was rescheduled after a battery leak started in the server room and forced an evacuation by the fire department.
The conversation changed at Tuesday’s board meeting when attorney Andre Perron, sitting next to developers Pat and John Neal, stood up and challenged the pending motion. He presented a letter that said board policies and state law would be violated if they continued.
“If necessary, my clients have authorized me to take appropriate legal action to protect their respective interest,” the letter states.
Board attorney James Dye and district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum reviewed the claim and agreed that six months of community feedback should be provided before the board votes on whether to change the school’s name.
During public comment earlier in the meeting, John Neal said renaming the campus would affect him and others who made decisions based on the school’s decided name.
“I’m a large property owner in the area and I relied on that decision,” he said. “I made financial, business-oriented decisions based on the reliance of this board.”
Gretchen Fowler, president of the Parrish Civic Association, said she recently met with Pat Neal and Scott Hopes, the board chair, along with Neal’s representatives and Priscilla Trace, chair of the Manatee County Commission and a supporter of the name change.
It was an impromptu meeting during a recess at the last meeting, just before firefighters evacuated the building. In response to “public inquiries,” Hopes addressed their encounter at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I did indeed gather up those folks and take them upstairs to find out who knew about this item coming up at the last minute, when staff was not prepared, the attorneys were not prepared, and to ask the relative parties if there was a solution to this issue,” he said.
Messenger fired back, saying it was inappropriate for one person to make deals behind closed doors, a comment Hopes denied.
“Our job is to listen to the community,” Messenger later said. “Our job is not to worry about one particular business interest.”
A contentious debate
Those opposed to the name change have shifted focus to town pioneer Crawford Parrish, a slave owner. Several residents said they received automated phone calls about the issue.
Board member Dave Miner asked John Neal if his associates prompted the calls, as several Parrish residents have claimed, but the board chair interrupted before Neal could respond.
Parrish was once a town where people braved fever ticks, wolves and cattle thieves, taking time to whittle or chew tobacco in their downtime. They enjoyed freshly milled rice and homegrown potatoes on their dinner tables.
Interviews between the Manatee County Historical Society and descendants of Crawford Parrish formed a picture of the open range. Ranchers would pack a week’s worth of coffee and horse feed before they hunted for wandering cattle.
“The Parrishes arrived in Florida when the region was a tangled wilderness,” according to transcripts of Mary McMurria, who read from historical documents during an interview with Mary Parrish Deal in 1972.
“Streams abounded with fish, bear, deer, and smaller birds, turkey were the constituents of the Redmans paradise. By slow progress, by slow degrees, the whiteman worked his way southward into the jungle. Trail-blazing through thick forests and dangerous swamplands. hardship was the rule.”
But it was slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans that made way for such communities, according to a letter from the Manatee County NAACP. The letter was sent via email to the School Board of Manatee County on Aug. 8, and the message included an image of people hanging from a tree “like ornaments,” as described by the letter.
Crawford Parrish owned 32 slaves in 1860, according to a Hamilton County tax book. His history of owning slaves was also documented in a paper read at the Manatee Historical Society on Oct. 15, 1975.
“Crawford Parrish and family moved to Florida, opened up land in the fertile Suwannee River section and with the aid of their slaves developed the land into rich productivity,” it said.
Naming a school after a slave-owning family, the NAACP said, is akin to supporting a long history of atrocities.
“When some speak of pioneers, explorers and settlers, others view as murderers, rapist, enslavers of people, and thieves,” the organization’s letter said.
However, residents have argued, Crawford Parrish and his family moved to what is now the Parrish community in 1868, several years after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.
And the town was not named after the father, but rather his sons John and Crawford P. Parrish, who were highly regarded in the community. Norma Kennedy is known as the local historian, and she pointed to an obituary for John Parrish, printed in 1918.
It said he was a longtime resident who inspired the town’s name.
“Mr. Parrish was a member of the school board many years,” it said. “A man of sterling worth and character.”
Parrish was originally known as Oak Hill, named after Major Turner’s plantation. The Parrish family arrived to a community that formed around Turner’s estate.
Residents later voted to name their town after the Parrish family, honoring their contributions and avoiding confusion with another Oak Hill community in Florida.
At the Aug. 14 school board meeting, a resident praised the Parrish sons for supporting the creation of a local railroad, along with a church and a school.
Larry Parrish said his ancestors made way for the commerce and agriculture that still exists in town. He returned on Tuesday to defend John Parrish, his great-grandfather, and the rest of his family.
“Those were men with a vision,” he previously said. “We wouldn’t be here today, discussing schools, because there probably wouldn’t be a community if it were not for those two fellas.”
Fowler, president of the Parrish Civic Association, recently said the effort is not about Crawford Parrish or any one person. Residents are afraid their community is being forgotten, replaced by a generic name like “North River,” she said.
“I was asked to help a group a Parrish residents because they didn’t know how to be heard,” she said.