2 Virginia schools will no longer be named after Confederate leaders

MECHANICSVILLE, VA - MARCH 3, 2018: A sign on the side of Lee-Davis High School reads, "Where Tradition and Pride Run Deep," in Mechanicsville, Virginia on March 3, 2018. (Photo by Julia Rendleman for the Washington Post)
MECHANICSVILLE, VA - MARCH 3, 2018: A sign on the side of Lee-Davis High School reads, "Where Tradition and Pride Run Deep," in Mechanicsville, Virginia on March 3, 2018. (Photo by Julia Rendleman for the Washington Post)

A predominately white suburban Virginia community steeped in Civil War history is embracing change at last.

Shortly after 9 p.m. on Tuesday, the Hanover County School Board voted 4-3 to change the names and mascots at Lee-Davis High School, home of the Confederates, and Stonewall Jackson Middle School, home of the Rebels.

The split vote was a fitting culmination to a contentious, decades-long debate over whether to rename Hanover County’s two Confederate-themed schools. The latest eruption began just a few months ago after the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police sparked a nationwide reckoning over racial injustice.

An outspoken group of students, alumni and community members argued that public schools that pay homage to the Confederacy alienate minorities and convey a preference to whites. A parade of African American alumni spoke in front of the school board, sharing their shame at playing for a school named after Confederate leaders or their discomfort at cheering for a mascot that represents the oppressors of their ancestors.

School board member Robert L. Hundley said just before voting in favor of the name change that hearing those stories influenced his decision. Hundley no longer felt Hanover County could “claim to be an inclusive environment for students” if the names and mascots of two schools glorified the Confederacy.

“We owe it to all of our students to create an inclusive, welcoming and nurturing environment,” Hundley said. “I just believe the time is now to do this.”

The Hanover County school board’s decision is notable even at a time when Confederate monuments and school names are vanishing across the South.

This is a community where quiet residential neighborhoods back up to Civil War battlefields and cemeteries, where neo-Confederate groups march in the annual Christmas parade and hand out flags to revelers. There are longtime residents who are direct descendants of Confederate soldiers and have a hard time seeing why others don’t share their romanticized view of the South’s cause.

Opponents of the name change also questioned whether it was worth the money it would cost, especially amid talk of the construction of new schools to replace Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson. School board member Sterling H. Daniel shot down that argument, noting that the new schools were “more than a decade away.”

“As a result, I must consider the wisdom of a prolonged fight to keep the names rather than using our time, energy and resources to begin healing the divisiveness now,” Daniel said. “It has been divisive for families, siblings, neighbors, friends, coaches, alumni of those schools and the school board itself. I don’t think it’s healthy for any community and certainly not ours.”

Lee-Davis opened as an all-white high school in 1959, four years after the Supreme Court ruled that all public schools had to desegregate. Some historians suspect that the school’s name was chosen as much to deter prospective Black students from enrolling as to honor General Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, two prominent Confederate icons.

School officials eventually removed the word “Confederates” from all athletic jerseys and retired the Confederate soldier mascot. Many Black students still did not feel welcome even after those changes.

Some chose not to participate in sports, sought permission to attend other Hanover County schools or resorted to homeschooling. Those who played sports for Lee-Davis often dreaded being introduced as a Confederate.

“There was no pride for me in representing the Lee-Davis Confederates,” former Lee-Davis soccer player Eduardo Lopez told Yahoo Sports earlier this month. “It was awkward. It was embarrassing. I only played because I loved the sport.”

A little over two years ago, the Hanover County School Board commissioned a survey to better understand how its constituents felt. Of the more than 13,000 Hanover County residents who responded to the survey, a little over 3 in 4 wanted to keep the Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson names and mascots.

The tone on Tuesday could not have been more different. Ahead of the meeting, the school board received dozens of messages in favor of changing the names. Only two comments submitted to the board were in favor of keeping the names.

“The school names have been a symbol of inequality for the African American community,” said Robert Barnette, president of the Hanover County NAACP. “The decision by the school board today was long overdue and a first step towards racial justice in Hanover County. We are encouraged that the Hanover County School Board made the right choice today.”

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