Manatee School Board votes to give new high school in Parrish a new name

After more than 18 months of debate on whether its name should change, North River High School will officially open as Parrish Community High School in August, a decision made by the Manatee County School Board on Tuesday evening.

The board previously considered three names — North River, Oak Hill or Parrish High — and then decided on North River in August 2017. After pushback from the Parrish community, board members voted 4-1 to revise the name on Tuesday, with board member Charlie Kennedy dissenting.

Students from throughout the county will attend the school, Kennedy said, underscoring the need for a more inclusive name. He recommended “North River Parrish High School,” prompting immediate boos from the crowd.

Gina Messenger, the board’s vice chair, moved to name the school Parrish Community High School, and board member James Golden seconded her motion. While board member Scott Hopes agreed with Kennedy’s suggestion, the name would pass regardless of their support.

“There are times when you vote for unity,” Hopes said.

Expecting a large crowd, the board held its meeting at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto.

Fewer than half a dozen people, most of them district employees, attended the afternoon workshop. As the board discussed textbooks and sports, the Canadian Snowbird Association enjoyed music and laughter in the adjacent room, creating an echo at the empty board meeting.

But in between the board workshop and its regular meeting, the Parrish Civic Association held a tailgate outside the convention center. Three dozen people arrived for burgers and hotdogs, many of them sporting white shirts with black text: “#WeAreParrish.”

The crowd grew to more than 100 people as a sign twirler and two cheerleaders danced nearby, and the group doubled by the time board members convened at their regular meeting.

More than one hour of public comments ensued. Palmetto residents, including Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant, shared their own community pride, with Palmetto High School as one of its crown jewels.

Several guests were vehemently opposed to having another PHS — Palmetto High School and Parrish High School — in Manatee County. In response, the board added “community” to its chosen name.

John Colon, a past board member who voted on the original name, underscored the school’s future student body, which will include children from both Parrish and the surrounding communities. As a school funded by taxpayers countywide, Colon felt the name should be inclusive of all residents.

Several others decried the apparent sway of local developers. Pat Neal and his son John previously opposed the change, pointing to business decisions that were made after the naming of North River High. Their new community, under construction nearby, was dubbed North River Ranch.

Residents feared the town would be overrun by development, stripping Parrish of its history and its small-town appeal. They felt Manatee’s newest high school should be named after its host community.

But it was history that prompted further debate, especially when it comes to pioneer Crawford Parrish, who owned 32 slaves in 1860, according to a Hamilton County tax book.

Hours before Tuesday’s meeting, the Manatee NAACP maintained its unanimous opposition to the name Parrish High School with an email. The organization, led by Rodney Jones, said the community’s history is stained by slavery.

“Though we do understand what uncontrolled growth is doing to east county, we cannot ignore the historical context of the name, and what that may have meant for our ancestors who were enslaved here in Manatee County,” the email states.

At a previous board meeting, Parrish residents highlighted a newspaper article from 1918. It said the town was named after Crawford Parrish’s son, John, “a man of sterling worth and character,” according to the article. Community leaders also said the town arose after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

The NAACP disagreed with the Parrish Civic Association and its president, Gretchen Fowler, but they found common ground in the struggle to combat rapid development and a perceived takeover of their communities.

“Gretchen and I have spoken at length and she is aware of our opposition,” Jones’ email continued. “She has known nothing but class and dignity while fighting for what her community believes to be best for them.”

Golden, the board’s only black member, said he was moved by an earlier comment. A 12-year-old boy said it was important to honor Parrish’s current residents and to remember the past, atrocities included.

“It’s also about the history of the people who were hurt, and whose great-grandchildren sit right here tonight,” Golden said. “Son, thank you for reminding us of the one thing that really matters, our history, because if you don’t remember the history, you will repeat it.”

Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.