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Task force recommends John Tyler Community College change its name because Tyler owned slaves
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Task force recommends John Tyler Community College change its name because Tyler owned slaves

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A task force created by John Tyler Community College will invite the public to suggest new names.

A task force created by John Tyler Community College says the school should change its name because its eponym, the 10th president of the United States, was a slave owner and supporter of the Confederacy. The recommendation is the latest instance of a Virginia school shedding an association with the Confederacy.

The task force unanimously voted to recommend that the college in Chesterfield County change its name and two buildings named for former Virginia politicians Mills E. Godwin and Lloyd C. Bird, the college’s president said Friday. The State Board for Community Colleges, the governing body for community colleges in the commonwealth, will make the final decision.

“It is no longer enough to talk about our college’s commitment to equity,” said Ted Raspiller, president of John Tyler, in a message to the school community in July. “We must take responsibility and enact change to ensure that commitment is a reality for our employees, students and community.”

That month, the state board asked all of the community colleges in Virginia to review the appropriateness of their school names, campus names and facility names. Tyler assembled a task force that included 10 voting members and five other content experts. The voting members were students, faculty, staff, alumni and other stakeholders. The group first met in September.

After discussing the issue, it voted to recommend a new name.

“The task force felt strongly that it wanted everyone to feel welcome,” said Holly Walker, a spokeswoman for the school.

Raspiller was not available for comment, Walker said.

John Tyler, who was born in Charles City County, was elected vice president of the United States in 1841. When President William Henry Harrison died just 31 days after inauguration, Tyler assumed the presidency and served the remainder of Harrison’s term. He ran for re-election in 1844 but dropped out when the Democratic Party rallied its support around James K. Polk.

Tyler’s family owned two plantations in Charles City, and Tyler owned slaves. In the days preceding the Civil War, he presided over the Virginia Secession Convention, voted for secession and was elected to the Confederate Congress. He died of a stroke in 1862 before the Congress held its first session. He is buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.

The task force also recommended changing the name of Godwin Hall because the man it is named for, former Gov. Mills Godwin, was a part of the Massive Resistance effort that opposed integration of public schools. Godwin was governor of Virginia from 1966 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1978, and a high school named for him opened in 1980 and stands in western Henrico County.

Bird Hall also should be renamed, the task force said. The building is named for Lloyd Bird, who was a Virginia state senator from 1944 to 1972. He helped in the creation of Virginia Commonwealth University, but he also supported Massive Resistance. A high school named for Bird was built in Chesterfield in 1978.

The task force acknowledged that Godwin did help start the community college system, and Bird aided in securing funding for John Tyler Community College.

Other colleges and schools across the state have changed their names in 2020 or removed references to the Confederacy. Lee-Davis High School in Hanover County became Mechanicsville High, and Douglas Freeman High in Henrico removed its mascot name, Rebels, and replaced it with Mavericks. Earlier this fall, VCU’s board of visitors voted to change the names of buildings honoring Lewis Ginter and James Dooley because of their associations with the Confederacy.

Tyler’s naming task force has begun the process of choosing a new name, and it will invite members of the community to make suggestions next month. It hopes to make a recommendation to the state board in March, and the state board will approve or deny the recommendation.

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Eric Kolenich writes about higher education for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 and spent a decade as a reporter in the Sports section. (804) 649-6109

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