In Hanover, a name is more than a name

The sudden push to rename a historic school that educated scores of Black students reeks of revenge

March 20, 2023 12:09 am

John Manuel Gandy, the namesake of a Hanover elementary school, was the son of enslaved parents, a pioneering African American educator and the third president of Virginia State University. (“History of the American Negro and His Institutions”/Arthur Bunyan Caldwell)

It took years of community outcry, the urging of a governor, being sued by the NAACP and national media scrutiny for the Hanover County School Board to finally be shamed into voting to remove the names of Confederate treasonists from two schools’ monikers in 2020. Now, this same board is proposing that the one school in the district with a name representative of Black history and Black excellence be renamed, in a move that smells like spite and looks like regression.

Last Tuesday, a packed School Board meeting saw over a dozen members of the public speak up about John M. Gandy Elementary School, an institution that was once one of the only schools for Black students in Hanover County. A new school building under construction on the current Gandy site that will replace Gandy and consolidate it with Henry Clay Elementary was slated to retain the school name at the project’s inception in 2018.

John M. Gandy Elementary School (Hanover County Public Schools)

Back then, board members assured community members that they had no intention of removing Gandy’s name from the replacement school. What has changed since then?

Well, the board became embroiled in a firestorm over its refusal to change the Confederate school names starting in 2019. 

And then, that same year, the Ku Klux Klan – a group of domestic terrorists known for lynching Black people throughout the South –  hosted a recruitment rally on the county’s courthouse grounds. 

In 2020, current Board Chair John Axselle said the quiet part out loud at a meeting of regional school leaders about the lack of racial diversity at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, asserting that such schools for gifted students “don’t appeal to everyone, nor do I think we should. …I think it might change our vision, mission or our uniqueness if we try to look like a general public school. We’re not. This is a gifted school.” 

His comments came off as elitist, exclusionary and tone deaf. And considering that in Hanover schools Black students are overrepresented in disciplinary actions but underrepresented in advanced and gifted courses, Axselle was in no position to give advice on the subject, anyway. 

Another change was the addition of John Redd to the school board. This controversial, self-declared Christian conservative figure publicly railed against the changing of the Confederate school names in 2020, before his appointment by the majority-white, majority-male Board of Supervisors in 2022 to replace a School Board member who had voted to change the Confederate school names.  

The biggest change since the board’s 2018 promise to leave the Gandy name intact is that Hanover County’s legacy of systemic racism, pervasive in many of its sectors, including education, has been laid bare for all the world to see. It cannot, it will not, be hidden any longer.

John M. Gandy was born to parents who had recently been delivered from slavery. He went on to become a world-class educator and the third president of what is now Virginia State University. Since then, Gandy has been a symbol of Black self-determination and elevation through education.

At last Tuesday’s School Board meeting, several Gandy Elementary alumni spoke about the lasting impact their experience there had on their lives and its cultural significance to the community.

“What makes John M. Gandy so special is that it still sits in the middle of a Black community,” said Gandy graduate Shirley Quash. “The African Americans here fought against discrimination in all sectors of life – and it is not over. To strip this school of John M. Gandy’s historical brand will bring a slap to the face of all the African Americans who carry it close to their hearts every day.”

“I’m speaking to you because I want you to remember us Black students who attended this school,” said John Williams, a 1961 Gandy graduate. “Kids had to get up at daybreak to attend this school, and get home at night; do you understand what I’m saying? Had to pass all these Caucasian schools and couldn’t attend them; do you understand? Believe it or not, John M. Gandy will always stand regardless of what you do, because it’s a God up above who rules everything. Watch yourself.”

My father and his three sisters all attended Gandy. My great-uncle Rev. Dr. Robert Bowles was a teacher there, as strict as he was caring, I’m told. Almost every elder in Hanover’s Black community has been influenced in some way by the school, which bears “a healthy name, a name to be proud of,” as another alumna said at Tuesday’s meeting. 

Gandy alumna Shirley Quash returns to her seat after speaking at a March 14 Hanover School Board meeting in opposition of renaming her alma mater. (Samantha Willis/The Virginia Mercury)

The school is located within the Berkleytown Historic District, a Black community established after Ashland mandated segregation in 1911. Despite the atmosphere of virulent racism and discrimination surrounding it, Berkleytown “functioned as a largely self-sufficient community, as it included not only single-family houses but also restaurants and shops, a school, funeral homes and other resources,” according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. A key part of Berkleytown, Gandy is one of the very few public examples of Black history, culture and contributions that the majority-white Hanover powers-that-be have authorized, until now.

The board cites its Policy 4-3.8 as its excuse for reneging on the promise to retain Gandy’s name for the replacement school. The policy, adopted in 2000 and revised just a month after Redd took his board seat in 2022, states: “No school, school building, school room, track, gymnasium, stadium, media center or library, field, nor any other portion of the campus or facility on the campus will be named for a person (living or deceased).” The board has also appointed a 2023 Elementary School Naming Committee, charged with making a single recommendation of a name for the replacement school to the board. 

Chairman Axselle declined to speak with me about the renaming but sent a statement that reads in part: “Many of us on the School Board believe that with the construction of this new school – combining two schools into one – our longstanding policy, which we are obligated to uphold, requires us to name this new school building. … Additionally, this policy, which was originally adopted in August 2000, does not distinguish between newly built or existing schools, so the School Board may decide to change the name of a school at any time.”

Where was the board’s obligation to this so-called “longstanding policy” in 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and half of 2022? During that time period, in meetings, public information sessions and presentations, and on the Hanover County Public Schools’ website, the forthcoming school was referred to as a “replacement school” and/or a “consolidated school,” not a new school. Nor did the board during that time recommend Gandy’s name be stripped from the newly built replacement/consolidated school.

Last July, Ashland Town Manager Josh Farrar stated in the town newsletter, “We are a tight-knit community and keeping this historic school in the town is important to build trust and strengthen relationships. We appreciate that Hanover County and Hanover County Public Schools heard and honored that request by selecting a location and design that reflects the future John M. Gandy Elementary School that our families and kids deserve.” 

In the same publication, Faye Pritchard, who represents Ashland on Hanover’s Board of Supervisors, stated of the new facility: “It’s important that the school is reflective of the community, not only architecturally but also of the goals the community has for itself. It should honor the Town of Ashland’s history and speak to our aspirations for its future.”

It appears the School Board is acting against the desires of not only the Ashland community, but also some of its own county leaders. At a time when the teaching of African American history is under threat, when some Virginia schools are opting to straight up lie to students about the existence of systemic racism and its consequences, and when Virginia’s own governor seems to deem diversity and inclusion “inherently divisive concepts,” the proposed stripping of Gandy’s school name is another step in the wrong direction. 

The board plans to vote on the replacement school’s name at its May 9 meeting. The School Board and School Naming Committee are now seeking the public’s perspectives on the renaming. I, and many other Black Hanoverians I know, plan to call in support of keeping the John M. Gandy school name. It will be up to the board to answer these calls in a way that either respects the wishes of its constituents or reflects its reputation of racism, exclusion, intolerance and regressive thinking. 


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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.