As other Virginia school systems act, one is still clinging to its racist Confederate names

July 8, 2020 12:01 am

Hanover County school officials have so far resisted requests to change the names of schools named for Confederates, like Lee-Davis High School. (NBC 12)

On Monday, Gov. Northam sent a letter to school board leaders statewide, asking them to rename schools that still bear the names of Confederates, of which there are 14. 

The next day, a statue of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart was plucked from its pedestal on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, leaving Lee as the lone Lost Cause icon remaining on the street. Virginia is home to more Confederate iconography – including monuments, roadway monikers and school names – than any other state in the nation; but now, totems of the Confederacy are coming down all over the Commonwealth. 

As we witness a racial reckoning in real time across the state — including school systems in Fairfax, Prince William and elsewhere taking action — in Hanover County leaders continue clinging to racist history by blatantly ignoring thousands of residents urging them, for years now, to rename Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School.

Soon after news broke of Gov. Northam’s appeal to school boards to ditch Confederate names, I called every member of the Hanover County School Board to hear their thoughts. Sterling H. Daniel of the Mechanicsville District told me he couldn’t comment on the school names, “because the [Hanover County] NAACP has informed us they intend to appeal the lawsuit, so I can’t speak on ongoing litigation.” School Board members Robert Hundley and George Sutton also said they couldn’t comment. In May, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit the civil rights group brought last August. The NAACP argued, rightly, that schools named after Confederates harmed African American students and other pupils of color and impeded their right to an equal education.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of sense, as my grandmother would say, to understand why Black students are discouraged and distracted by school names and mascots that glorify the racist traitors who fought and died for the right to enslave Black people, perhaps even some of their ancestors. What it does take is empathy, compassion and a willingness to change, none of which the school board has displayed in its staunch refusal. School Board Chairman John Axselle of the Beaverdam District returned my call only to say he also couldn’t comment on the school names. The other board members never responded. In times like these, a new era that demands we speak truth to power, Hanover school board’s collective silence is deafening. 

In the continued absence of any meaningful words or actions by the school board to change the school names, former and current residents of Hanover are speaking out instead. Four fellow Hanoverians I talked with hold a common conviction: the Confederate school names and Hanover leaders’ unwillingness to change them is a reflection of the county’s long-festering culture of racism. It’s the same invisible, insidious culture of racism that made the Ku Klux Klan feel welcome to host a recruitment rally in front of the county courthouse last summer. It’s the same culture of racism that spurred a Hanover County man to self-identify as a “leader of the Ku Klux Klan and a propagandist for Confederate ideology” when he was arrested and charged for driving his truck into a crowd of people protesting police violence and racism in Henrico last month.

It’s a culture of racism that must cease, by any means necessary.

‘We have a real chance now’

Alexsis Rodgers, the Virginia state director for domestic workers advocacy group Care in Action and a Richmond mayoral candidate, grew up in western Hanover. She is a 2009 graduate of Hanover High School and said she always had great relationships with her teachers. It wasn’t until she was an adult that she began to reflect on the racist microaggressions she experienced as a student. 

“It was subtle stuff, like when people said I was ‘the Black friend,’ or their only Black friend,” she said. “It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized how bizarre that was, how they, basically, tried to tokenize me.” 

Rodgers said her parents, transplants who moved to Hanover in the late ‘80s, tried to shield her and her brother from racism in the community largely by not acknowledging it. Her parents, and mine, belong to a generation of Black people who sometimes avoid talking about the racism they’ve encountered; it can be traumatizing to revisit. In May, authorities charged a Hanover youth in connection with a Snapchat post of two white juveniles, one posing with a gun, plastered with the message “Let’s hunt some n*ggers.” The Hanover school district reported the post to police, although it wouldn’t confirm if the teens were Hanover students.

“I would love to see the names change,” Rodgers said of Hanover’s Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School. “I think it’s very exciting to see what’s happening on Monument Avenue. I won’t hold my breath, but I’m very hopeful that one day it will happen.”

Rachel Levy, a longtime education advocate and Caroline County teacher, has raised her three children in Hanover. She recalled her shock and concern when one of her sons, then in third grade at an Ashland elementary school, returned from class with a troubling assignment.

“He came home with this handout about Robert E. Lee, and it said ‘[Lee] hated slavery, but loved his state.’…  I was horrified. My other son’s assignment was on Benjamin Banneker; they were supposed to dress up as these characters.” At a meeting with her son’s teacher and school librarian, Levy says she and her husband told them, “We don’t believe in the Lost Cause, we don’t teach our children that. They were kind of miffed.”

Levy is an organizer with Together Hanover, which describes itself as a non-partisan group whose members “support progressive policies and candidates.” The organization has been vocal about the need to change the racist school names, and its members have helped plan recent demonstrations in front of the Hanover County School Board office in Ashland ahead of board meetings. At a June 9 event, more than a dozen people, many of them Black graduates and current students, spoke about their experiences with racism in Hanover, detailing moments of humiliation, anger and sadness. Levy, who is White and has lived in the county since 2009, said the national climate presents an opportunity for progress in Hanover. 

“People’s minds have been so poisoned by the Lost Cause mythology, that the truth is often obscured. … But we have a real chance now in this moment to get some leverage on this issue. The school names are harmful and need to be changed.” 

Stonewall Jackson Middle in Hanover County. (NBC12)

‘Making them feel lesser’

Sheri Shannon, director of Shannon Strategies communications firm, was raised in Hanover, the daughter of the beloved pastor and first lady of Shiloh Baptist Church, a historic Black congregation in the heart of Ashland. Where the school system failed Black students and families, Shannon said, Black churches supported and encouraged them. Her own parents were strong advocates for Black students, inside and outside their church family. They, and leaders from other churches, often raised issues, like the high rate of Black male students being suspended during her years at Patrick Henry High School.

“I just know that the Black churches in Hanover, if it wasn’t for them, … a lot of the kids who are products of Hanover County public schools may not be where we are today.”

Issues of systemic racism are a chief concern for Shannon, who recently moved to North Chesterfield but still visits Hanover frequently. 

“There’s a lot of institutional racism that Hanover has to deal with as well, not just in its school systems, but also with the county board of supervisors, and the resources [that are] allocated to the county to ensure people have internal plumbing, people have access to broadband internet, folks who are dealing with substance abuse issues [get help], people who need transportation [get assistance] … those numbers are very startling, when you start to look at the disparities within Hanover.”

Pat Jordan is a Hanover native whose heritage here dates back to at least the early 1800s. Jordan’s mother, a teacher, moved the family to Henrico to escape the racism in the school system. Jordan returned to Hanover when she married and started a family; both of her sons are graduates of Lee-Davis High School. 

“One of my sons was in the band,” said Jordan. “He didn’t want to wear a uniform that had ‘Confederates’ on it. So we would put a jacket around his band uniform to hide the Confederates name.”

In addition to being a longtime Hanover Schools volunteer, Jordan is vice president of the Hanover County NAACP, said the school names have done damage to Black students.

“What the school system is acknowledging is the Lost Cause, the Confederacy, not the Black children who are attending these schools every day. … It has the effect of making them feel lesser.” Hanover County leaders must have “a heart change,” Jordan believes, to begin to understand and mitigate the corrosive racism that is an undercurrent of life here. 

Doing what’s right

On June 30, Longwood University announced that its new, 43,000 square foot interdisciplinary academic building would be named in honor of Dr. Edna Allen Bledsoe Dean, the school’s first Black tenured professor. Longwood will also rechristen Ruffner Hall, a campus building named after 19th-century slave owner, pioneering education leader and segregationist Henry Ruffner.

The decision came less than two weeks after a petition asking the university to remove Ruffner’s name was spearheaded by Justin Reid. Reid, a public historian, director of community initiatives at Virginia Humanities, Farmville native and relative of Dr. Dean, said a series of questions he asked himself and others in his community compelled him to create the #RenameRuffner petition.

“Why not name these [campus] buildings after people whom a wide variety of people in the community will be proud of? Why uplift someone or something that is harmful to a portion of your community?” In truth, said Reid, changing a school building’s name is the easy part.

“Our schools need more funding, more diverse staffing, updated curriculum and other resources. But if you won’t change the name of a building, how can we trust that you’ll be committed to the more difficult parts of the discovery process? If you can’t do that, how can we trust you to do the hard work that’s necessary to make educational environments more equitable?

These are questions I implore Hanover School Board to think and act on in their next meeting on July  14. In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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Samantha Willis
Samantha Willis

Samantha Willis, a writer and journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans 12 years, is Commentary and Deputy Editor at the Virginia Mercury. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, Scalawag Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review, and within a wide range of Virginia-based media.