Thursday, September 21, 2017

Confederate public school names do harm

This past May, some colleagues and I published an article in the Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership (JCEL) about a high school in Virginia (it's a composite) named for the leader of the secessionist Confederate Army, Robert E. Lee. I blogged about that article here. I have watched and studied the issue of Confederate-named public schools and mascots with great interest over the course of the past few years, bookmarking dozens of articles (maybe someday I will do a study about it).  However, I have more than a scholarly interest in this.

Ever since Charlottesville, across the state of Virginia, and country, counties and cities have been reconsidering their Confederate-named schools and mascots. In Virginia alone, so far I know of efforts in Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William Counties. There's one Virginia county, however, where the School Board is studiously not reconsidering their Confederate-named schools and mascots, and that's the county where I live, Hanover.

About five or six years ago, I realized the importance of local and state education policy and decided to get much more active at those levels. I wrote about that here. I have been very open and public with my advocacy efforts, but I have mostly privately expressed consternation about and advocated for holding public discussions about the two Confederate-named schools and mascots in Hanover County Public Schools (note: these schools are not in my district, or part of the county): Lee-Davis High School (mascot: Confederates) and Stonewall-Jackson Middle School (mascot: the Rebels). The names promote white supremacy and are shameful and harmful to students and community members. Needless to say, my efforts have not resulted in any movement.

Certainly, other Hanover County Public Schools stakeholders have also advocated about the name and mascots over the years, but after Charlottesville happened, advocacy around this issue got new urgency.  More Hanover residents and Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall-Jackson Middle School community members and alumni started speaking up. For example, an alumnus named Ryan Leach, started this effort on facebook which includes an eloquent and compelling statement as to why the names should be changed, and which led to this larger petition addressed to the School Board. I came across this letter written to the Hanover School Board by another alumna, Mary Murrell, about why the names and mascots should be changed. I don't normally post about local matters here but I was so impressed with how well-written and -researched Mary's letter was and thought it so relevant to the greater issue, that I asked her if I could share it.

Here it is:


August 24, 2017

Dear Hanover County School Board,

I am a graduate of Lee-Davis High School (class of 1981) and have recently joined hundreds of people in signing a petition asking you to change the name of Lee-Davis High School. As I have additional thoughts about the name, I wanted to write you directly and lay out why I believe this action is urgently needed. I also want to include Stonewall Jackson Middle School, which I attended in 1977-78, to the discussion.

The Context in which Lee-Davis Was Named

As you likely know, when the name of Lee-Davis was chosen in May 1958, Virginia was defiantly refusing to integrate its public schools. At that time, Virginia remained one of only seven states that still maintained segregated schools, even though the Supreme Court had handed down its unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education four years earlier.[i] Successive Virginia governors had called for statewide “massive resistance” to that ruling, and Virginia’s legislature passed a series of laws that defied federal orders to desegregate its schools.[ii]

In 1958, despite Brown vs. Board of Education, the county was busy planning two new all-white high schools: one for the eastern end and one for the western end. Black students would continue to attend the county’s only “negro” high school, located in Ashland.[iii] The School Board chose to name the eastern end high school Lee-Davis. According to the minutes of the May 6, 1958, School Board meeting, the Board did so “in the memory and honor of two prominent members of the Confederacy,” Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.[iv]

How and Why the Name Lee-Davis Was Chosen

Various rumors have circulated about how and why the School Board arrived at the name Lee-Davis. I have looked into what evidence exists in the public record. At the time of the May 1958 naming, the Richmond-Times Dispatch reported only that the School Board approved the name “on recommendation by a special committee.”[v] The Herald-Progress provides more precise details.[vi] The new eastern end high school was to consolidate two existing overcrowded high schools (Battlefield Park and Washington-Henry). Earlier in the year, juniors from the two schools independently considered names for what would become their new school.[vii] Each group of students submitted just one name: the Battlefield High students recommended the name Jefferson Davis; the Washington-Henry High students recommended the name William White, in honor of a teacher at both high schools who had been killed in World War II.[viii]

Later, the County School Board would choose a different name: Lee-Davis. The new name came from B. W. Sadler, the School Board member representing the Henry district.[ix] The school was in a hurry to name itself, as it was already May and officials were hoping the school could open in September. Because students at Battlefield Park were nicknamed “the rebels,” and the students at Washington-Henry were nicknamed “the statesmen,” Sadler thought that his name captured a bit of both. Jefferson Davis, he reasoned, had been a rebel, so his name fit with the Battlefield Park side, and Robert E. Lee, a general and a statesman, suited the Washington-Henry side. Sadler also added that the combination of the two names Lee and Davis into one hyphenated name had “individuality.”

The Context of the Naming of Stonewall Jackson

Even after the last of the massive resistance laws were ruled unconstitutional in 1959, Virginia continued to fight school integration. Some school systems were closed entirely rather than admit black students. Full integration would require the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. And yet, even with that landmark legislation, Hanover County was among the last counties in Virginia to fully integrate its schools.[x] Spurred on by a lawsuit brought by the parents of black students, Hanover County finally fully integrated its public schools with the 1969-70 school year—a full fifteen years after Brown v. Board of Education and ten years after Lee-Davis opened.

That first year of full integration, 1969, presented an opportunity to replace the name Lee-Davis with a more inclusive or at least neutral name such as Mechanicsville High. Unfortunately, that renaming did not happen. Rather, the Hanover County School Board chose for its new junior high school, adjacent to Lee-Davis, yet another confederate name: Stonewall Jackson Junior High.

Why the School Names Need to be Changed

Public schools have the legal obligation to provide an education to all children and to treat their students equally. Public schools are powerful institutions that shape and influence their students for years to come. School names such as Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson – along with their attendant mascots and nicknames – are as much public symbols of the Confederacy as monuments, statues, and the Confederate flag.[xi] When the Hanover County School Board chose in 1958 to honor prominent men precisely for their association with the Confederacy, it sent a message to the public and to its students. This message said, and continues to say, that public authorities in Hanover County esteem and celebrate the Confederacy. It is wrong for the Hanover County Public Schools to do this for the following reasons:

Paying homage to the Confederacy through naming, mimicry, and memorialization disdains, insults, and alienates black students. No matter how common or “normal” symbols of the Confederacy are throughout Virginia, they are never neutral. Confederate symbols convey a message of domination and exclusion. When a public school honors the Confederacy, it conveys a preference for the concerns and interests of the historically dominant social group (whites) in the South at the same time that it conveys a lack of sympathy and even contempt for the historically dominated group (blacks). When a public school honors the Confederacy, it tells non-white students that Hanover is a white person’s county and that they don’t belong in the same way that whites do. By sending these messages – not limited to those I’ve listed – a public school betrays the spirit of equality that is fundamental to public education. When our public authorities continue to pay homage to the Confederacy, black (and also immigrant) students can never be sure they will be treated fairly. A community cannot prosper if any group of citizens is alienated or feels targeted for discrimination.

Virginia and Hanover County’s defiance with regard to school integration during the Civil rights era is a regrettable legacy that needs to be redressed not perpetuated. It has been shown that Confederate symbols spiked in two distinct historical periods.[xii] The first period was the early 20th century, after Reconstruction, when white supremacy again took hold in the South, the Ku Klux Klan gained power, and southern states passed Jim Crow laws that terrorized black citizens. The second spike occurred during the civil rights period from 1950-1970, when Southerners forcefully resisted federal efforts aimed at integration. Both Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson were named during this period. Lee-Davis was named amid Virginia’s “massive resistance,” and Stonewall Jackson was named in very year that Hanover County belatedly integrated its public schools for real. Notably, no schools in Hanover have been named after Confederate figures since this time. The School Board has chosen non-controversial place names like Atlee, Pole Green, and Hanover for the newest schools. This is all for the good but it does not alleviate the prior problem of Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson.

The Confederacy was founded upon and committed to abhorrent beliefs, and public institutions should not in any way associate themselves with such beliefs. Southern states, including Virginia, seceded from the United States in order to preserve slavery in the South and to extend it into the territories. Since the 1950s, there is no longer any dispute among academic historians about the reasons for the Civil War.[xiii] Slavery was a system of oppression under-girded by the belief that white people were superior to black people. Its leaders, such as Alexander Stephens, did not believe, as the Declaration of Independence declares, that all men were created equal but, rather, that slavery was “the natural and normal condition” of black people.[xiv] There is no “racially friendly” case for the Confederacy, no matter how passionately some people, including many in the Lee-Davis community, insist there is.

Celebrations of the Confederacy depend upon discredited history that was promulgated after the South lost the Civil War, and, as such, these celebrations mis-educate young people about the past. After the defeat of the Confederacy, its former leaders (and others) cultivated a revised version of events that sanitized the Civil War as one fought over states rights, “Southern honor,” the South’s superior agrarian way of life, and so forth. This new version of history gave rise to the romantic myth of the Lost Cause. This myth remains stubbornly popular -- especially, but not only, in the South – but, regardless, it is still a myth. A public school teaches history not myth. I am certain that Lee-Davis teachers teach proper history. But outside the classroom, students confront other ideas about the past. Lee-Davis calls itself the “home of the Confederates,” titles its yearbook The Confederate, incorporates two Confederate figures into its logo, and takes as its motto “Tradition and Pride.” In what traditions should its students be proud, exactly?

Honoring the Confederacy imposes a false heritage onto white students. Many students that attend or have attended Lee-Davis, including myself, do not consider the Confederacy to be part of their heritage, or, if they do, they do not take “pride” in it. I love many things about Virginia, and can find many things about its history and culture to be proud of, but its leadership in the Civil War and its continued tendency to defend and whitewash the Confederacy is not among them. The schools’ names should be changed because they encourage white students to believe that the Confederacy and its “traditions” are something that they should value and embrace, and that the Confederacy is a positive part of who they are and a positive source of their identity. A public school violates the public trust when it imposes such associations and values upon its students. Children in Hanover County schools – of any color or background – are not confederates. They should not be taught to carry the Confederacy in their hearts or to derive values from it.

What’s even more concerning is that Neo-Nazi groups are currently engaged in something similar. David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, equates Confederate symbols such as statues, flags and schools with “white culture,” and Neo-Nazi groups, like the Klan before them, have embraced Confederate symbols, as seen at the recent Charlottesville “Unite the Right” march. These extremists have no hesitation in admitting that the Confederacy was about white supremacy—that’s why they want to associate with it.[xv] The Hanover School Board needs to seriously consider whether it is any longer possible to disentangle the Neo-Nazis’ Confederacy with the “romantic” Lost Cause Confederacy.[xvi]   

A Duty to Overcome the Discrimination of the Past

In discussions of changing Lee-Davis’s name, I have witnessed a lot of strong feelings. I believe such strong feelings arise precisely because current and former students have come to see being a “Confederate” as somehow an important part of their history, culture, and identity. I have argued throughout this letter that a public school should not play a role in promoting such an identity. But many people in the Lee-Davis community nevertheless do feel that “pride” that they have been encouraged to feel. You therefore cannot look to the current and former student body to resolve this issue through voting or petitions. They are likely only to deliver the status quo.

You will be criticized for whatever you do, I recognize that, but doing nothing is not an option. The Confederate names were chosen a long time ago. That was not your doing. But today you have the privilege and the power to undo them. The problem is not going to go away as long as the names remain. Small tweaks like saying “C-fed” instead of “Confederate” at football games do not solve anything; they only point to the problem that won’t go away. The divisiveness that surrounds the discussion of name change is already embedded in the names themselves. That divisiveness cannot be avoided, but it can be overcome. Changing the names is the way forward.

In 1966 a federal judge wrote, “The duty rests with the [Hanover County] School Board to overcome the discrimination of the past.”[xvii] It is 2017 and Hanover County has still not overcome the “discrimination of the past.” Lee-Davis’s mission statement says that the school aspires to “assure a quality education for success in a changing world.” Hanover County is part of that changing world. Please find new names for Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School.


Mary Murrell, 
Class of 1981

[i] Kristen Green, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, A Civil Rights Battle (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), p. 165.

[ii] There is a large literature on this subject. Bob Smith, They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1951-1964 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965); James Latimer, “The Rise and Fall of ‘Massive Resistance,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sept 22, 1996, A1, A9-A12; Ira M. Lechner, “Massive Resistance: Virginia’s Great Leap Backward,” Virginia Quarterly Review, 74:4 (1998); Matthew Lassiter and Andrew Lewis, eds. The Moderates’ Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998); George Lewis, Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford: Hodder Arnold, 2006), pp. 52ff.

[iii] Given the size of the county, some black students, especially those in the eastern side of the county, had to endure two-hour bus rides to school, in dilapidated and segregated buses—or not go at all. “Gandy High Alumni Reflect on School Days,” Herald-Progress, September 10, 2009, p. 1.

[iv] Hanover County School Board minute book, May 6, 1958.

[v] “Hanover School Named Lee-Davis,” Richmond-Times Dispatch, May 7, 1958.

[vi] Dan Sherrier, “The History of Lee-Davis and Patrick Henry High Schools,” Part II, Herald-Progress, October 2, 2008, pp. 2, 6.

[vii] In 2009, a student from the first graduating class told a reporter covering the 50th anniversary celebrations: "I remember sitting in Washington Henry and going through all these names…. We were trying to be really creative." Richmond Times-Dispatch April, 17, 2009.

[viii] Whether intended or not, the latter suggestion would have resulted in an all-white high school with the name “White High School.”

[ix] Sadler later became the School Board Chairman and, in 1966, earned lasting notoriety after the School Board banned To Kill a Mockingbird. Claudia Durst Johnson, “The Issue of Censorship,” pp. 3-22, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 2006). Sadler died in 1976.

[x] Herald-Progress, July 11, 1968. Cited in Dan Sherrier, “The History of Lee-Davis and Patrick Henry,” Part X, Herald-Progress December 11, 2008. See also Rebecca Bray and Dr. Lloyd Jones, The History of Education in Hanover County, Virginia, 1708-2008 (Ashland, VA: Hanover County Public Schools, 2010).

[xi] For a comprehensive list of Confederate symbols, including schools, see Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy. Montgomery, AL: Southern Poverty Law Center, 2016. Available at:

[xii] See Whose Heritage?

[xiii] James M. McPherson, “Southern Comfort,” New York Review of Books, April 21, 2001.

[xiv] McPherson, “Southern Comfort.”

[xv] For examples of white supremacists embracing the Confederacy for its racist ideology, see: Campbell Robertson, Alan Blinder, and Richard Fausset, “In Monument Debate, Calls for an Overdue Reckoning on Race and Southern Identity,” New York Times, August 18, 2017.

[xvii] Herald-Progress, February 3, 1966, Cited in Ben Sherrier, “History of Lee-Davis,” November 13, 2008, p. A-9.


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