A family is fighting to keep their mother’s name on the elementary school where she volunteered and, in doing so, block an effort to rechristen it for a pre-teen runaway killed during the Civil War.
More than 30 years after becoming the Doris L. Cohen Elementary School — named for a woman who volunteered at the school and served on the local school board for 25 years — the four-story building on Albermarle Road could soon be honoring Clarence McKenzie, a 12-year-old killed in a musket accident at an army camp in Annapolis in 1861, where he was helping the Union cause as a drummer boy.
Cohen’s adult children don’t want their mother to take a backseat to a juvenile Civil War casualty.
“I don’t understand the point of dishonoring my mother,” said Ellen Paskin, Cohen’s daughter. “You don’t name a school lightly.”
Her brother said renaming the Kensington school would send a message to kids that they “should be like this boy,” added JC Cohen.
The president of the parent teacher association had no problem with that.
“This boy was an unsung hero,” said Nicholas Pisano, who is also a vice-president at Green-Wood Cemetery, where McKenzie is buried under a large monument.
“I’m not saying a 12-year-old should go off to war, but in this day where most kids are plugged into their iPods, [McKenzie’s story] brings them back to a different reality.
“It’s the message of citizenship and doing stuff for other people,” he added.
In fact, McKenzie was the first Brooklynite to give his life in the War Between the States. He joined New York’s fightin’ 13th Regiment after fifth grade, the highest level of public education at the time, according to Pisano.
The prepubescent Yankee’s name is recognizable to the students at PS 230, who learn about him in the classroom while studying the Civil War and on trips to Green-Wood Cemetery.
But McKenzie’s statue in Green-Wood is enough of an honor, Cohen’s family says. Especially when renaming the school would require a dishonor to their mother.
She might not have gone off to war, but she fought her battles in the 1960s and ’70s, when city teachers went on strike. Cohen marched on Albany for school funding increases and also helped get playgrounds, gifted programs and pre-K classes set up at PS 230 and other schools.
Awareness of Cohen’s contributions has faded over the years. Even her portrait had been taken down years ago (though it was recently re-discovered by a custodian and re-hung near the PS 230 entrance).
No school name is safe from revision, even if the honoree’s achievements are well known. Last year, PS 94, in Sunset Park, jettisoned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in order to become the School of Diverse Languages and Cultures. Such re-namings are a cautionary tale for anyone who believes history is set in concrete, but they’re completely legal under current Department of Education regulations, which stipulate that a school need only retain its name for 10 year.
After that, it’s up for grabs.
In the case of McKenzie vs. Cohen, the limelight might be big enough for both icons. Impassioned pleas by Cohen’s relatives and a former colleague at a meeting last Thursday swayed the PTA to delay a final decision as both sides work towards a compromise.
Parents at PS 230 in Kensington are considering stripping Doris L. Cohen’s name from their school in favor of that of Clarence McKenzie, who died in the Civil War. Clearly the school ain’t big enough for both these giants of history — but how do they compare in a head-to-head smackdown?
BORN IN: Borough Park, 1909
AGE AT DEATH: 67
LIFE’S WORK: Getting more money for public schools.
KILLED BY: Cancer.
MAJOR HONOR: Then–Borough President Howard Golden praised her at school-naming ceremony.
MAJOR DISHONOR: Portrait languished in school storage for more than decade; no one knew it was painting of her.
FUN FACT: Cohen created her own house divided — she was an active Democrat, but was married to a dedicated Republican!
BORN IN: DUMBO, 1849
AGE AT DEATH: 12
LIFE’S WORK: Playing the drum for marching Northern troops during the Civil War.
KILLED BY: Friendly fire.
MAJOR HONOR: The drum and bugle corps of the 13th Regiment erected his monument at Green-Wood Cemetery.
MAJOR DISHONOR: He was buried in unmarked grave until his remains were identified.
FUN FACT: He had disobeyed his parents to enlist in the Army — and never got to tell them they were right!