Christina Amano Dolan, Contributing Writer
Hannah Eason, News Editor
In a mostly white county about 10 miles northeast of Richmond, a petition has gained almost 7,000 signatures to keep the names of two schools named after Confederate officials, Stonewall Jackson Middle School and Lee-Davis High School.
The Hanover County School Board — which covers a district that is about 86% white according to the U.S. Census Bureau — shows no sign of changing the names of the two schools, despite a recent lawsuit filed by the NAACP.
The NAACP suit argues that the usage of Confederate names forces students of color to “champion a legacy of segregation and oppression,” violating their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech and equal protection.
The suit states that requiring black students to attend schools that blatantly glorify Confederate figures — Lee-Davis’ mascot is the “Confederates” and Stonewall Jackson’s is the “Rebels” — forces them to experience “racial harassment” producing long-term injury.
“When African American students are required to identify as ‘Confederates’ or ‘Rebels’ in order to participate in school activities,” the suit states, “they are required to endorse the violent defense of slavery … and the symbolism that these images have in the modern white supremacist movement.”
Mack Shank, a VCU junior and drumline instructor at Lee-Davis, said he tries to educate his students on the history behind their school mascot, and how it may negatively affect others.
“I strongly believe the name should be changed,” Shank said. “I believe it has a deep negative impact on not just the students’ understanding of the Civil War, but their political sensitivity for their whole lives.”
Shank said his students “passionately believe” the school’s name should be changed.
“These kids I teach are remarkably smart and open minded,” the junior said. “They resent that their mascot is the Confederates, passionately believe it should be changed, and try to spread the word to their peers to beat the ignorance that definitely exists in the school.”
The NAACP suit argues that by naming the schools after two Confederate figures — both of whom have no immediate relation to the county of Hanover — the county’s intention was to “make it clear that African American students were not welcome.”
The Hanover County School Board approved the name of Stonewall Jackson Middle School in 1969, briefly after the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ordered Hanover County to “take whatever steps might be necessary to convert to a unitary system in which racial discrimination would be eliminated root and branch.” The school opened in 1970.
According to the suit, Lee-Davis remained largely segregated a decade after its opening, as 1,140 students were white and 44 were black. Today, as the school has more than 1,500 students, and less than 10% of the student body is black. More than 1,000 students attend Stonewall Jackson Middle School and 10% are black.
As of 2018, 31 Virginia schools were named after Confederate figures, and 18 of them changed the name by the end of last year. Today, only 11 remain, including Robert E. Lee High School in Fairfax County, Stonewall Jackson Elementary in Bristol, and Stonewall Jackson High School in Shenandoah.
In December 2017, residents of Hanover county petitioned to change the names of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School. In April 2018, the Hanover County School Board voted 5-2 to retain the names.
Amanda Schloss, a sophomore at James Madison University and graduate of Patrick Henry High School in Hanover County, doesn’t see anything wrong with the school names.
“I personally don’t agree with [the names] being changed,” Schloss said. “I think it’s important to protect history. It’s taught in our schools, and it’s not something that can be forgotten. The confederate school name does not brand the students inside of it.”
Grace Skelton, sophomore at VCU and graduate of Atlee High School in Hanover County, said changing the names could make the schools more inclusive.
“You have to think about the present and about the social and political climate going on in today’s world,” Skelton said. “Everyone should feel accepted and proud of who they are, and if the name of their high school makes someone feel the opposite way, then it definitely should be changed.”
First opening its doors in 1959 — as a white-only school until 1963 — Lee-Davis High School was founded during a time of resistance against the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. While federal law required the desegregation of schools, many Virginia localities employed tactics to resist the ruling.
NAACP members’ children who attend the schools have refrained from participating in sports or other school activities “because they do not want to endorse the school’s pro-Confederacy name,” the lawsuit stated.
Victoria Dawn Smith, senior at VCU and graduate of Lee-Davis, doesn’t think the Confederate names should remain.
“We’re so accustomed to the name that many people just brush it off their shoulders,” Smith said. “But I do believe it should be changed. I don’t think it’s right by any means.”