While high schools around the country have been changing their names to move away from offensive stereotypes and the nation’s segregationist past, the Cherry Hill school district has a different problem: how to honor two outstanding community members.
A proposal to rename the district’s administration building to honor Arthur Lewis, its first Black school board member and a champion for diversity, passed unanimously after a heated debate at a three-hour meeting Tuesday that some said divided the community along racial lines. In 1969, the building was dedicated to Estelle V. Malberg, a longtime educator and advocate for special needs children.
“I think it’s a fitting tribute,” said Pat McCargo, of the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association. Lewis and his late wife, Evelyn, an educator, were founding members.
After the plan became public a few weeks ago, there was an outpouring on social media to keep Malberg’s name on the building. There were calls to name another building in the South Jersey district or a park after Lewis.
“I don’t understand why one legacy has to be erased for the other,” Jen Richman, a local resident, wrote in a Cherry Hill Facebook group. “They are both outstanding individuals who contributed so much to the betterment of the community.”
The board also voted Tuesday to approve the appointment of Toni G.R. Damon as principal of Cherry Hill High School West. She becomes the school’s first Black female principal. She currently is principal at Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School in Philadelphia. She succeeds Kwame Morton, who was recently named an assistant superintendent in Cherry Hill.
After the lengthy debate Tuesday night, board member Miriam Stern tried to delay the name change until May, but her motion was defeated 7-2. The board said it would discuss how to honor Malberg at its May meeting.
“The either-or proposition I find troubling,” board member Ben Ovadia said. “Can’t we do two things?”
Choking back tears, board member Rosy Arroyo, a Latina, said Cherry Hill continues to experience institutionalized racism “that makes it seem like we are choosing one over the other.”
“When you have been oppressed, that is not a good look,” she said.
The town of about 71,000 is 75% white.
Following the George Floyd killing last year, a flurry of schools have sought to change buildings named for enslavers, segregationists, and Confederate soldiers. An Atlanta high school named for an ex-Ku Klux Klan leader recently changed its namesake to legendary baseball great Hank Aaron.
Prior to the vote, Superintendent Joseph Meloche said renaming the administration building was a fitting way to honor Lewis. He also touted Malberg’s accomplishments as a teacher and administrator. The building houses the district’s alternative high school program and the board of education.
“Honoring Mr. Lewis doesn’t take away from the legacy that Miss Malberg had,” the superintendent said.
Rick Short, a parent, said he was afraid that Malberg, who died in 1964, would forever be forgotten. The Cherry Hill school system is the 11th largest in the state, with more than 11,000 students. The district has 19 buildings.
» READ MORE: DEA trailblazer battled crime and racial barriers
Malberg, who was born in Philadelphia, began her career as a teacher in 1926 in Waterford Township, according to her biography. She spent 35 years in Cherry Hill as a teacher, principal, school psychologist, and coordinator of special services, and as an assistant to the superintendent of schools. She also taught reading at what was then Glassboro State College, now Rowan University.
“Children with special problems were more than a challenge to her ability; they were a reason for her existence,” read the program from the building dedication.
Lewis, who died in 2019, served on the Cherry Hill school board from 1977 to 1983. A career law enforcement officer, he rose through the ranks in the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to become the highest-ranking African American in the Department of Justice. He spent years undercover, infiltrating drug gangs in the United States and abroad.
“It was hard work and it was difficult,” Lewis recalled during a 2014 interview with The Inquirer. “But to me, it was very worthwhile.”
His daughter, Jennifer, thanked the board for considering honoring her father. She said the family “humbly asks for nothing.”
“My father was a man for all people,” she said. “I am so incredibly proud.”