When the time came to name the consolidated Henry Clay and John M. Gandy elementary schools, the fix was in.
There’s no way a majority of the Hanover County School Board would allow the new building to retain the name of Gandy, a former all-Black segregation-era school named for a longtime president of Virginia State University. The clock began ticking on the Gandy school brand the moment the district removed the names of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee from its schools.
The School Board majority maintained that it was strictly adhering to a district policy against naming new schools for persons living or dead. But a committee selected by the board had proposed a reasonable compromise: name the school after Berkleytown, an early- to mid-20th century African American hamlet developed just outside the town limits to accommodate racist zoning laws designed to keep Ashland white.
People are also reading…
Berkleytown — anchored by the original Gandy school, which now houses the Hanover School Board offices — became part of Ashland in 1977. It recently was placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. But the board thumbed its nose at these historical considerations and the recommendation of its committee in voting 6-1 Tuesday night to name the school Ashland Elementary.
Ola Hawkins of the Ashland District was the dissenting vote.
Karen Lynne, the Ashland representative on the committee, expressed shock and disgust with the decision in a letter to the board, noting that she’d put in hundreds of hours of work on the matter and poured through hundreds of emails and phone messages from the community.
“Of the more than 700 opinions given, more than 600 wanted the name to be Berkleytown or Gandy. How can you sit in your seats and claim to represent the community when the committee counted the votes and told you what the community wanted — only for you to ignore it?
“It’s preposterous,” she wrote. “The committee went on facts. And you have ignored them.”
In the process, the board sent a clear message to county constituents: Think twice before agreeing to serve on an advisory committee. The School Board will take your recommendation under advisement — wink-wink — and then do what it intended all along.
In this case, the board majority didn’t desire a research-based recommendation; they wanted political cover. When the committee failed to provide it, the board responded with pettiness and arrogance.
“I really didn’t think that they would just so overtly ignore the work of their own committee,” Lynne said Thursday. “The committee was handpicked by the School Board. And I know they got people that they believed would see things from their perspective. And it didn’t turn out that way at all.”
It’s reassuring to know that the majority of the committee acted in a spirit of community engagement, open-mindedness and compromise.
Can we get those folks on this School Board?
This Gandy controversy emerged with the appointment last May of Mechanicsville representative John Redd to the School Board.
Several years earlier, there had been a tacit, if unofficial, agreement among Superintendent Michael Gill, the board and the Ashland community to retain the Gandy name on a consolidated school to be built on the Gandy site. But that was before the names of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School fell, the arrival of Redd on the board and the purging of members who’d supported the name changes.
“Ashland Elementary” was among the suggestions Redd floated to Gill in a June 29, 2022, email objecting to school district references to the planned rebuild as “the new Gandy school.”
"Hanover has become the place where consensus goes to die," writes The Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams.
“Being a graduate of LDHS, I had ‘hard feelings’ about the Board’s decision to remove the Lee-Davis name but I have accepted it and am moving on; so, let’s not show some type of bias in naming the new school,” Redd wrote. “If we stick to the policy, no one has a valid claim of some sort of bias in the naming of schools. We need to be consistent in the application of the policy and the treatment of citizens in all parts of the county; otherwise, we will rightfully face claims of bias.”
If avoiding the appearance of bias was the goal, Tuesday’s action represents an epic fail. The Berkleytown name was not at loggerheads with district policy; there was no sound reason to reject it.
On one hand, it might seem perfectly logical to name the consolidated school Ashland Elementary. After all, the school is in Ashland. But viewed through a historical lens, this naming shows the same sort of callous disregard that led the Hanover school district to lionize Confederate leaders who took up arms against the U.S. government for the right to keep Black people in chains.
A majority of the committee understood this. It took into account how Berkleytown residents felt about having Gandy Elementary renamed for the town that had excluded them residentially and educationally. It also considered that the town of Ashland is named after the Kentucky plantation of Hanover native Henry Clay, an enslaver and U.S. senator known as “The Great Compromiser.”
The School Board, in ignoring the will of a historically oppressed community, tossed compromise out the window.
“It was very clear that to name it Ashland Elementary was going to be a slap in the face to the Black community,” said Ashland District Supervisor Faye Prichard.
When a score-settling school board hides behind policy, and ignores historical considerations and community consensus, indifference and insult are the point.
Michael Paul Williams
@RTDMPW on Twitter