Students at a Central Florida Middle School Honor the Memory of Roberto Clemente
Roberto Clemente continues to serve as a source of inspiration for the next generation. In 2020, a middle school in Orlando, motivated by the racial reckoning in the United States, changed its name from that of a Confederate General to that of an Afro-Latino icon, humanitarian, and baseball hero: Roberto Clemente.
Stonewall Jackson Middle School opened in 1965 on the eastside of Orlando as a segregated school for white students. For decades, the school's name stood as a symbol of white supremacy and a painful reminder of the racial injustices and violence committed in this country towards Black people and descendants of enslaved Africans.
The name change process began in 2017 when Amman Thomas, a father of two students, voiced his displeasure with the middle school's name to the school’s advisory council and how it commemorated the legacy of the failed Confederacy.
"As an African American, as an American descended from slaves, the name Stonewall Jackson is extremely offensive to me," he told the Orlando Sentinel.
Hampered by delays for three years, the effort to rename the school picked up momentum again in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and renewed criticism of the school’s name.
When ideas for a new name began to surface, Johanna Lopez, an Orange County Public School Board member, suggested that the students should be the ones to propose the school's future.
"The students were very receptive. They participated in the research. They engaged in writing meaningful essays about the different leaders they chose," said Dana McLane, a teacher at the school, speaking with La Vida Baseball.
Once students were encouraged to express their thoughts on a new name, a few students submitted the name Roberto Clemente Middle School via an essay writing assignment.
"Roberto Clemente is not only a baseball legend, he is also an incredible role model for us all," said Justice, a current student at the school. The name was then included in a survey where it emerged as the overwhelming favorite.
"The day of the school re-naming, I saw the community and all the school board members united," Johanna Lopez recalls the scene at the Orange County Public School Board meeting. In a unanimous vote, the board decided to re-name the school to Roberto Clemente Middle School, leading to a standing ovation.
For a school that serves a predominantly Latino neighborhood, some community members like Earl Lugo, the President of the Azalea Park Little League, felt like Roberto Clemente was the most fitting choice based on what he represents. To Earl, it's all about Roberto's message to the world and how that resonates with kids. At the school’s entrance, there now stands a mural with one of Roberto Clemente's most famous quotes.
"Anytime you have the opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on earth."- Roberto Clemente
"This is the message that they're seeing every morning. That's their cup of coffee, their inspiration to come back to school," says Earl Lugo as he reflects on the significance of the mural.
Clemente was more than a baseball player. His legacy is treasured by the sports and Latino communities for how he served others through humanitarianism and a commitment to social justice. He was an advocate for those being damaged by racism and prejudice during a time when speaking out on these issues had severe consequences to not only a person’s career but also their life.
"We changed that name, and it makes me want to work harder and work for the community," said Lorena, a student interviewed by La Vida Baseball at Roberto Clemente Middle School.
For these students, re-naming the school to an Afro-Latino symbol of social justice is a worthy example of what a community can accomplish when it works together to acknowledge the past and work towards a better future.