Illinois School Currently Named After Thomas Jefferson Will Be Renamed for Rep. John Lewis

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Rachel DeSantis
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Jeff Hutchens/Getty John Lewis

An Illinois middle school named after Thomas Jefferson will be renamed in honor of civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis due to Jefferson's past as an enslaver.

The Waukegan School Board announced the official name change in a statement that also revealed a second school in the district will be named after hometown hero Edith M. Smith.

"They were civil rights icons. They played important roles furthering the equity which we continued tonight," board President Brandon Ewing said, according to the Chicago Tribune. "[Lewis] embodies what we want to teach our students, and that is how to get into good trouble."

Though Jefferson was actively involved in legislation that he hoped would one day lead to the abolition of slavery, and referred to slavery as a "moral depravity," he enslaved more than 600 people over the course of his life, according to Monticello.

In discussing the decision to remove his name from the middle school, Ewing reportedly cited the very words Jefferson himself wrote in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal."

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"Thomas Jefferson wrote these words at a time when my ancestors lived in bondage as enslaved people," he said, according to the Tribune. "That is the original sin of America that, to this day, has not been absolved."

Though other names were floated as possible replacements, including Barack and Michelle Obama, the honor eventually went to Lewis and Smith, who helped desegregate a local elementary school in 1965 in a case that eventually went to the Illinois Supreme Court.

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According to the Tribune, Smith will replace Daniel Webster Middle School, which Ewing noted as problematic in November due to the former Massachusetts senator's support for slavery in the early 1800s.

Lewis rose to fame as a civil rights leader in the 1960s, and in 1965 was a leader at the march in Selma, Alabama, which eventually led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

He was elected to Congress in 1986, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2011. Lewis died of pancreatic cancer in July at 80 years old.

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"John Lewis is a statesman par excellence, who epitomizes the struggle of our African Americans to gain their freedom and recognition," board member Rick Riddle said, according to the Tribune.

The name changes will go into effect on July 1.