This past October at a conference in Farmville, a white teacher asked me what advice she could give to her school to retain black male teachers. I gave her answers about prioritizing recruitment, supporting black male teachers and creating a safe space for them to talk about the challenges that come with being only 2% of the profession. I asked her what school she worked at, and she responded, “Lee-Davis High School.”
Lee-Davis High School in Hanover County combines the names of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The mascot is the Confederate, and the feeder middle school is named after Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson. A gigantic banner in the gymnasium of the two Confederates says the school was established in 1959.
That year is important because many monuments to Confederate leaders were established post-World War II, when black people began to stand up and demand their civil rights. The school name is rooted in a history of intimidation, degradation and enslavement of black people in America.
It’s time for the name to change.
Imagine being a student of color having to attend a school built on a legacy of white supremacy. How can black students proudly say they are a Confederate at school pep rallies or sporting events?
A former student, Faith Hubbard (Class of 2019) said, “Being forced to call myself a Confederate as a black student at this school was so disgusting and humiliating. My friends and I made many attempts to contact the school board about this and they shut us down each time.”
School spirit is an essential point of pride for students. The students at Lee-Davis are being robbed of that experience and are being racially abused by their school’s name.
White students also want the name to be changed, and have urged their classmates to sign a petition on Change.org. It has more than 12,000 signatures, and is filled with comments from former students who felt abused by the name of their school.
The Hanover NAACP recently issued a challenge to the name in federal court, saying that the name was a violation of the rights of black students under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The suit was dismissed.
The parents and leadership of Hanover refuse to change the name and collectively attempt to silence any student or group advocating for change, sending the message that the concerns of students of color do not matter. This message became more evident last year, when in response to a KKK rally in the county, Board of Supervisors Chairman W. Canova Peterson said he supported citizens peacefully expressing their opinions. Why is it acceptable for the KKK to be given free speech protection, but students are routinely silenced when advocating for themselves?
This problem doesn’t exist only in Hanover. This is a problem across Virginia and the nation. Some school districts in Virginia understand the psychological damage being done to students. This past week, Prince William County Public Schools Superintendent Steve Walts said he wants to rename two schools named after a Confederate general. The tide is turning, but Hanover has dug in on the position that hate disguised as heritage is more important than inclusion and empowerment.
This past year, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing localities to have control of the removal of Confederate monuments. That doesn’t go far enough to protect the black children of Virginia from the spirit-killing oppression of attending schools named after Confederates: I urge Gov. Ralph Northam and legislators to protect the students of the commonwealth by passing legislation that bans the names and mascots of Confederates from Virginia schools.
Earlier this month, when Northam ordered the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Monument Avenue, he said, “When a young child looks up and sees something that big and prominent, she knows that it must be important. And when it’s the biggest thing around, it sends a clear message: ‘This is what we value the most.’ But that’s just not true anymore.”
I think back to that giant Confederate soldier on the gym wall at Lee-Davis High School, and I disagree with the governor. It’s still true for the students who attend Lee-Davis High School and other schools named after Confederates. We must begin the hard work of making sure all our schools uplift and affirm the culture of all our students, starting with removing the names of these figures of hate.
Rodney Robinson, a social studies teacher for the past 20 years with Richmond Public Schools, was the 2019 National Teacher of the Year. Contact him at: NTOY2019@ccsso.org