Mary A. Buckner

Mary A. Buckner

Credit: Mark Haskey / Ledger-Enquirer

The newest public school in Columbus will be named after a trailblazing judge, despite controversy that emerged over the naming process.

During its meeting Monday night, the Muscogee County School District Board unanimously approved Mary A. Buckner Elementary School as the name of the school that will combine and replace Dawson Elementary School and St. Marys Road Magnet Academy.

Buckner was the first Black woman judge in Columbus Recorder’s Court and the first Black woman to graduate from Mercer University’s law school. The Columbus native grew up in the Dawson Drive area and attended the school that then was called St. James and later named Dawson. She died at 73 in 2021.

“Her entire life reflected a commitment to the betterment of that community which was uniquely hers,” according to the report from the committee selected to name the new school.

While nobody who spoke during the meeting denied the judge was worthy of having a school named in her honor, a committee member said the majority didn’t recommend the Mary A. Buckner Elementary name.

MCSD policy allows the board member representing the district where the new school is located to recommend the new school’s name to the board for approval.

The new school is in District 4, which is represented on the school board by Naomi Buckner, sister of Mary Buckner.

The board was expected to vote on the name during its July 17 meeting, but the board unanimously waived the one-month waiting period as part of the motion by countywide representative Kia Chambers to approve the proposed name.

“It has been almost sitting on the table for a certain length of time,” Chambers said during the meeting. “The public has given their feedback.”

The recommendation wasn’t publicly released until Monday afternoon, a few hours before the meeting, as an attachment to the agenda. So the Ledger-Enquirer asked Chambers in an email after the meeting to clarify her statement.

Chambers referred the Ledger-Enquirer’s query to Buckner, who didn’t reply to email and phone messages before publication.

Board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 said during the meeting that the board has waived the waiting period to vote on naming other MCSD facilities. The Ledger-Enquirer asked Green in an email and a voicemail after the meeting to explain the waiver’s rationale. She didn’t reply before publication.

The new school is scheduled to open in August 2024 on Dawson’s current campus, 180 Northstar Drive, along Kennedy Street. St. Marys is 1 mile away.


Committee recommendation

The Ledger-Enquirer reported in May that Naomi Buckner appointed a committee of stakeholders to help her make the recommendation. In addition to Buckner, the committee members were:

  • Trenton Chester, businessman in District 4
  • Cassandra Downing, teacher at Dawson
  • Mary Farley, Dawson alumna, former Dawson parent and current Dawson grandparent
  • Seritha Love, St. Marys alumna and former St. Marys parent
  • Sasha Smith, academic coach at St. Marys
  • Kimberly Wright, MCSD communications director.

The committee also conducted an online survey to gather community input. The survey’s results weren’t publicly released.

Although the committee’s report is written as if the proposal to name the school for Mary Buckner comes from the committee, one of the committee’s members told the board Monday night that isn’t the case.

Downing said the committee instead voted 5-2 to recommend naming the school in honor of the late Mary Lee Hall Bussey, who led Muscogee’s “Negro” schools for 18 years during segregation.

“We came up with a clear name,” Downing said, “but it was dismissed.”

Naomi Buckner didn’t explain why, Downing said.

“We thought we were going through a process, and that process was not a process; it was merely someone else’s agenda to do what they wanted to do,” Downing said. “I think that’s not right.”

The Rev. David Stallion, pastor of Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Columbus, told the board that naming the school for Mary Buckner, a former member of the church, “would represent a story and a message of triumph, someone who came through the ranks and defeated the odds against them.”

Mary Buckner didn’t just talk about love, Stallion said, but she demonstrated it with her actions. He received “wise counsel” from her, Stallion said, as he made “life-altering decisions.”

The Rev. Sherryl Harris King, pastor of Peters Chapel in Columbus, told the board that Mary Buckner “reflected a commitment to the betterment of the community. … One of her greatest observable strengths was the ability to persevere.”


Naomi Buckner responds to criticism

Naomi Buckner didn’t immediately respond to Downing’s criticism. Board members usually don’t respond to comments made during the public agenda. But she offered an explanation before the board’s vote.

Buckner said she made her recommendation based on the guidelines the committee set at the outset: historical, current or geographical features of the community or local area; or someone who made outstanding educational or society contributions in the local area; or someone who has significant meaning to members of the school community.

The committee also sought a name that wasn’t used elsewhere, Buckner said.

“As I reflected about all the candidates,” Buckner said, “I did determine she was the best candidate. I would not just reject her just because she’s my sister.”

Green told Buckner, “Someone being related to you, if you’re in elected office, does not disqualify the legacy, the contributions of any individual person.”

Chambers said “perception is important,” but several people came up to her at a Memorial Day barbecue and requested the school be named in honor of Mary Buckner.

Naomi Buckner’s original recommendation was to name the school as Mary A. Buckner Magnet Academy, but superintendent David Lewis noted a magnet program hasn’t been determined for the new school, so the motion was revised.

This wasn’t the first time the MCSD board rejected a committee’s recommended name for a school. In December 2016, a committee Green established to help her propose the name of the district’s new arts school recommended Midtown Columbus School of the Arts as the name.

One month later, the board voted 5-4 to instead name it Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts to honor Columbus natives Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939), the singer known as the “Mother of the Blues,” and novelist Carson McCullers (1917-1967), the novelist who wrote the bestseller The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with the Ledger-Enquirer.

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