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'It has to change': Meet the people behind the fight to change Hanover's school names

'It has to change': Meet the people behind the fight to change Hanover's school names

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The Hanover County School Board room was filled to capacity.

People clad in orange and blue lined the front row, proudly touting the colors of Lee-Davis High School. But sprinkled throughout the audience were residents who saw racism and oppression where others saw heritage; people who did not want their children attending schools named for Confederate leaders.

The School Board, concluding a debate that started in late 2017 and took up the first four months of 2018, voted that April day to keep the names of Lee-Davis, whose nickname is the Confederates, and Stonewall Jackson Middle School (Rebels).

The push to change them intensified.

The Hanover chapter of the NAACP sued the county in August, saying the names violate the constitutional rights of black students and their families by making them feel unwelcome and creating an unequal learning environment.

Lee-Davis was named in 1958 at the peak of Massive Resistance to Brown v. Board of Education by a three-member School Board tasked with christening a new high school in the eastern part of the county built to alleviate overcrowding at two others.

Students at one of the schools — Washington-Henry, which is now an elementary school — proposed naming the new school for a teacher who’d taught at both Washington-Henry and Battlefield High and was killed in World War II. At Battlefield, where students were nicknamed the rebels, students suggested Jefferson Davis High School.

On May 6, 1958, the School Board approved the name of Lee-Davis, honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Davis, the Confederacy’s president. Eleven years later almost to the day, in the first full year of integration in the county’s schools, the board named a new middle school after Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

The names could soon change.

Now the sole defendant of the NAACP’s lawsuit, the county School Board is discussing a resolution to the complaint, including removing the Confederate symbols. A settlement has not been reached — the School Board punted Friday on a vote to change the names — but the board’s chairman has said he hopes the board can reach a result “that the community can embrace.”

Here are some of the people behind the debate over whether to keep the names.

***

Opponent: Robert Barnette, president of the Hanover NAACP

Robert Barnette felt like he was out of options.

For years, the president of the Hanover branch of the NAACP and other members of the organization had lobbied the Hanover School Board to change the school’s names to no avail. There was one thing they hadn’t done: sue.

“There was no effort to hear our concerns,” he said. “It felt like we were wasting our time.”

So in August, the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit against the county, a step it didn’t take in 1970 when the NAACP unsuccessfully advocated for the name of the football team to change because some black players didn’t want to play for a team called the Confederates.

The lawsuit has the possibility of setting precedent both for schools in Virginia and across the United States.

Barnette, a native of Mecklenburg County, moved to Hanover nearly 30 years ago. He’d lived a “good life,” as he puts it — serving in the Virginia Air National Guard and attending both Virginia Commonwealth and Central Michigan universities.

He got involved in the NAACP as a way to give back to the community and help marginalized people. His two daughters went to Stonewall Jackson and Lee-Davis and were oftentimes the only black students in their class, Barnette said.

“After getting to know a lot of people in Hanover, especially African Americans, I found that the names were really bothersome,” he said, adding that after doing his own research when he first moved to the county he found that the schools were named during Massive Resistance. “That sparked my interest.”

He’d grown up in the segregated South, but had never seen the racism and admiration for the Confederacy he encountered in Hanover. There was the mural of the Confederate leaders in his daughters’ school gymnasium and the student dressed as a Confederate soldier riding on horseback at football games. All of it, Barnette said, is a painful reminder of a time when black people weren’t treated as people.

“African Americans shouldn’t be reminded of slavery and shouldn’t have to wear a uniform that promotes Confederate generals,” he said. “It’s just not right. [Change is] long overdue.”

The county didn’t provide high school education to black students before 1950 and took 15 years after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 ordered school desegregation to fully integrate its schools — one of the last localities in Virginia to do so, according to a history of the Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson names from alumna Mary Murrell.

Fifty years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Barnette said, the schools aren’t fully integrated.

“This is the 21st century and apparently the school system has not gotten over slavery and the effects it has had on the community, especially the African American community,” he said.

Four in five students at Lee-Davis are white, according to state data, and Stonewall Jackson has similar demographics. Achievement gaps persist in both schools. Black students at the two schools are less likely than their white peers to pass state tests in English, math, science and history, according to state data.

Federal civil rights data shows that while black students make up roughly 10% of the enrollment at Lee-Davis, they account for 20% of in-school suspensions and 23% of out-of-school suspensions.

Barnette said the county should be addressing those issues.

“As far we’re concerned, [changing the names] is the easy thing to do,” he said. “Those are the harder things.”

***

Opponent: Harold Stills, first black teacher at Lee-Davis High School

Harold Stills had finished his interview for a teaching position at Lee-Davis High School when the principal gave him a tour of the school’s campus.

As they turned the corner of the building, the marching band started to play and struck up the tune of “Dixie,” the de facto national anthem of the Confederacy. More than 50 years later, Stills remains unsure whether they started to play the song because of him.

“Was it offensive? Yes,” the now retired math teacher said.

Fresh out of college at Virginia Union University, the Hanover native needed the job. He interviewed three times for it, which he thought was curious when “it occurred to me that I was being groomed to teach at an all-white school.”

The first black students were admitted to Lee-Davis in 1963, three years before Stills broke the color barrier for faculty there.

He was received well and had a good experience at the school, he said, but there were some students who “probably weren’t prepared well at home” to have a black teacher.

One student, Stills, now 75, recalls, asked if he was prepared and qualified to teach them while challenging his teacher over whether zero was a number (it is). Stills took the time to walk his eighth- and ninth-grade students through number theory.

“That showed me — and him — that I was prepared to teach,” he said.

Stills eventually became an assistant principal and wound up in Hanover’s central office as the supervisor of mathematics.

He was still in the classroom in 1970 when the NAACP tried for the first time to have the names changed. Wary of getting into the debate as a faculty member, Stills stayed neutral. This time he isn’t.

“They’re supposed to protect the children, but you’ve got a segment of the population that’s deeply offended by the names,” he said of the School Board. “If you are in charge, you have a greater responsibility to the less fortunate.”

He added: “If you disagree with slavery, it would stand to reason that you’d want to remove the vessels of slavery.”

Not everyone agrees.

***

Proponent: Jack Ferguson, father of two Lee-Davis alumni

Proponent: Gary Jones, Lee-Davis class of 1968

If there’s any Hanover County resident who should want to change the names, Jack Ferguson thinks, it should be him.

Three of the Pennsylvania native’s ancestors fought for the Union Army in the Civil War, including at the Battle of Cold Harbor — an 1864 battle that took place less than 5 miles from where Lee-Davis High School now stands where Confederate troops overwhelmed Union forces and more than 2,000 soldiers were killed.

Ferguson’s great-grandfather, though, lived.

Now a resident of the locality where his kin fought, Ferguson was one of the more than 10,000 people last year who responded to a survey put out by the school system saying they supported keeping the names. The county, Ferguson contends, should spend the money in other areas, such as teacher salaries and in the classroom. The cost of changing the names is estimated at roughly $500,000.

Ferguson now thinks the School Board and NAACP should reach a compromise.

“I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I just don’t want to see the expense,” Ferguson said of the ongoing litigation.

More than 13,000 people responded, with just over 3 in 4 saying the school names and mascots should be kept. The board members who voted in April 2018 to keep the names all used the survey as rationale for their vote.

Gary Jones, now a minister at Jerusalem Christian Church in King William County, also responded to the survey supporting the names, worrying that changing the names will erase history.

Jones, who graduated from Lee-Davis in 1968, called Lee and Davis “two great Americans” who students “looked at as military heroes.”

“Changing a school name doesn’t better anybody,” he said. “I don’t see any improvement in anybody’s life or in education. Once you start changing names, you will constantly keep doing it. That’s a waste of money.”

***

Opponent: Rachel Levy, teacher and community activist

Opponent: Ryan Leach, Lee-Davis class of 2010

Rachel Levy feels a personal responsibility to change the names.

Her family ties to Virginia date back to the 1600s and her great-great grandfather served in the Confederate Army.

“This is my heritage too,” she said. “This is one thing I’m choosing to do about it. I wasn’t brought up to defend Confederate heritage.”

She added: “My family helped start these problems so it’s our job to fix them.”

Raised in Washington, D.C., Levy’s father worked on enforcing school desegregation orders and her mom worked for a civil rights lawyer. Social justice is in her blood.

In wake of the 2015 Charleston, S.C., shooting when white nationalist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine members of a historic black church, she thought the names would change. They didn’t. Then the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville happened and Levy thought there was “no way you can ignore this.”

Levy and her husband chose to live in Ashland specifically for its demographics, where roughly 3 in 10 people are not white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. She worries that county leaders aren’t valuing the people of color who live in the county.

A member of Together Hanover, a progressive political advocacy group, Levy worked with other members to revive the effort to change the names. That push ultimately led to the 2018 vote when five of the seven School Board members supported the names.

“I thought what happened in Charlottesville would be enough for them to say ‘We don’t want this to be what our schools are about,’” she said. “Hanover County Public Schools is not a Confederate heritage organization. They’re public schools.”

Ryan Leach, a member of the Lee-Davis class of 2010, started a petition after the Charlottesville rally to present to the School Board, which has the power to change the names. That online petition garnered 2,482 signatures.

The openly gay comedian, who now lives in New York City, said he had a positive experience at the school — except for the time people ripped his signs supporting Barack Obama for president in 2008 — but feels it’s time for the school system to “move beyond Confederate symbols.”

“Children are going to grow up in that county seeing the Ku Klux Klan fly Confederate flags and they are going to say, ‘That is my high school mascot,’” he said. “It has to change.”

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com (804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

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