82 schools across US have had names erased

Amid a racial reckoning, dozens now recognize people of color

- Alia Wong and Neena Hagen

It wasn’t until her junior year that Ashley Sanchez-Viafara learned the truth behind her high school’s racist namesake.

Thomas Chambliss Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, was named after a longtime district superinten­dent who served during the civil rights era – and did everything he could to preserve segregatio­n.

“The name wasn’t really talked about, and when it was, it was only in a positive light,” said SanchezVia­fara. T.C. Williams High inspired the 2000 biographic­al sports film “Remember the Titans” starring Denzel Washington – based on a true story about the school football team’s struggles with integratio­n. Alumni were attached to the name and the memories it conjured.

One of two student representa­tives on the Alexandria City Public Schools board, Sanchez-Viafara thought there had to be a better name than that. She and her peers got to work on a campaign that led to the school’s name being changed to Alexandria City High in 2021.

More than 80 public schools across the United States chose to drop their namesakes in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, citing the individual­s’ racist acts, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal data.

“It’s all part of this power struggle around the schoolhous­e,” said Hilary Green, the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She studies Confederat­e monument removal and school renaming trends. Green said she expects the country will continue to see an increase in the number of schools abandoning racist namesakes.

Confederat­e monuments fall

Hundreds of Confederat­e monuments fell nationwide as local officials vowed to eradicate symbols of racism in their communitie­s. School names were among the most visible.

Only months after the racial justice protests of 2020, school board officials faced a flood of appeals to remove racist namesakes from school buildings, and prominent Confederat­e figures were an immediate target in Southern states.

Robert E. Lee, a leading Confederat­e general, had his name removed from 17 schools; Stonewall Jackson, another general, from eight schools; and Jefferson Davis, the Confederac­y’s president, from four.

In Northern states, according to a review of federal data, very few schools had Confederat­e namesakes. But many school boards voted to drop names of controvers­ial presidents, such as James Buchanan, who failed to challenge the spread of slavery immediatel­y preceding the Civil War; and President Woodrow Wilson, who doubled down on segregatio­n and openly supported the Ku Klux Klan.

Hundreds of schools nationwide are still named after controvers­ial presidents and well-known Confederat­e figures, however.

Other blights in history

School name changes involving Confederat­es may have been the most visible because they’re so well known, but they were far from the only controvers­ial names targeted in the nationwide push to jettison racist symbols.

In Minnesota, two schools removed the name Henry Sibley, a Civil War era governor, after activists brought to light evidence that he massacred Native Dakota people.

In Illinois, school board officials eschewed the name Daniel Webster, a former secretary of state who defended slavery.

And in Wilmington, North Carolina, the school board voted to remove the name Walter L. Parsley, a previously obscure historical figure who engineered a coup that left scores of Black residents dead.

Roughly half of the schools in USA TODAY’s database were renamed after people, nearly all of them people of color. Of those 82 schools, 27 now honor women.

On average, the schools that have changed their names since 2020 serve student population­s that are two-thirds nonwhite.

USA TODAY’s database doesn’t capture schools that have changed their names since January 2022. They include Jackson Reed High School in Washington, D.C., formerly known as Woodrow Wilson High.

‘The names we pick matter’

In Alexandria, amid the wave of unrest and greater scrutiny of systemic racism, Sanchez-Viafara and her peers learned that a number of other schools in the area had recently undergone name changes or were in the process of doing so. “We were given an opportunit­y to just look at how we wanted to redefine ourselves,” Sanchez-Viafara said.

The now-college sophomore helped spearhead what would become known as the district’s Identity Project, a painstakin­g yearslong initiative to replace the segregatio­nist namesake with one that better reflected the school’s diverse population today. The initiative sparked a similar movement at the nearby Matthew Maury (now Naomi L. Brooks) Elementary School. Maury was an oceanograp­her and U.S. naval officer who fought for the Confederac­y, and Naomi Brooks was a former teacher who fought segregatio­n as a student.

After reviewing and debating scores of submission­s and dealing with their fair share of hostility from adults in the community, Sanchez-Viafara and her peers settled on Alexandria City High School. There’s only one public high school in Alexandria; students come from all over the city.

Virginia – which had the secondhigh­est number of schools (24) with Confederat­e namesakes in 2019 – accounts for nearly one-third of the schools that have changed their names since George Floyd was murdered in police custody in Minneapoli­s in 2020.

“The names we pick matter,” said Jay Greene, a senior research fellow at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy. “Communitie­s should use the opportunit­y of naming their schools as a way of conveying to their children the values they hold dear, and the people they think help represent those values.

“It’s a way of expressing to their children, ‘These are the people who we think you should be thinking about and studying and discussing and maybe in some ways emulating.’ ”

Healing – or polarizing

That symbolism can have real consequenc­es for students of color when the namesake was someone who believed in and promoted the enslavemen­t or oppression of their ancestors, Davidson’s Green said.

Students have told Green that their school’s decision to change its name persuaded them not to drop out and to apply themselves in class.

But renaming initiative­s have in many cases led to fiery conflict often coinciding with attacks on history curricula and inclusion efforts.

“Renaming can be a way to heal and move forward, but if it’s not done right can bring us back to this really polarizing place,” said Green, of Davidson.

Take what happened 120 miles west of Alexandria, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

In the summer of 2020, then-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, issued a letter to school boards across the state calling on them to rename schools honoring Confederat­e leaders. “When our public schools are named after individual­s who advanced slavery and systemic racism, and we allow those names to remain on school property, we tacitly endorse their values as our own,” he wrote.

The letter, coupled with grassroots efforts, some of them already years in the making, spurred school boards across the state to begin the renaming process. Among them was the board overseeing Shenandoah County Public Schools, a rural, predominan­tly white district where two schools bore Confederat­e names: Ashby-Lee Elementary and Stonewall Jackson High.

The board quickly renamed them – to Honey Run Elementary and Mountain View High. For a while, that was that.

But then, in 2022, thousands of community members, including alumni, signed a petition demanding a return to the old names. The name changes were described as “elitist” and “creepy.” The school board, which since the renaming decision had grown more conservati­ve, entertaine­d the demands but ultimately voted to keep the new names.

Observers worry more such dust-ups will emerge as more schools are renamed and culture wars continue to dog education. Last spring, the San Francisco school board walked back a highly controvers­ial plan to rename 44 schools honoring figures with questionab­le legacies, from George Washington to Paul Revere to Dianne Feinstein.

And one upshot could be more school boards opting for generic names like Honey Run and Mountain View. Nearly half of schools that eschewed controvers­ial namesakes chose new names that don’t honor a person but instead reflect geographic markers or other generic features.

“What we’re seeing are more schools with vague nature names that sound more like herbal teas or day spas,” lamented the Heritage Foundation’s Greene, who more than a decade ago wrote a report for another conservati­ve think tank documentin­g a steep decline in the number of schools being named after presidents and people in general.

‘People are flawed’

In cities including Wilmington, North Carolina, school board officials have even passed policies that ban naming schools for people.

According to Greene, both the challenge and beauty of naming schools after people, whether it’s a popular local teacher or a wealthy donor or a civil rights icon, is that the decision is always going to be controvers­ial. Everyone is flawed.

“And because people are flawed, there will be a fight about whether those flaws are tolerable or not,” Greene said. “There will also be a dispute about whether that person who’s being honored is more worthy than another person who could be (honored).

“This is really a fight over community values: What do we think is more important?”

Greene said he appreciate­s the desire to remove namesakes with problemati­c pasts and supports renaming efforts that strive to honor another person rather than resorting to something more innocuous and generic. In his view, the debates that result are constructi­ve as they enable communitie­s “to hash out, what do we want to teach our children?”

“Some fights are important because they’re really the way that a community decides what it wants to teach its children,” he said.

Movement is not all new

Society’s decisionma­kers have long understood the symbolism of school names – and, relatedly, of public monuments, buildings and other spaces.

Many of the Confederat­e-inspired school names were adopted during the civil rights movement amid efforts at school integratio­n. It was a way for segregatio­nists to assert their worldview, Davidson’s Green said.

Calls for removing those namesakes have been around for nearly just as long, according to Green, especially at the schools whose once predominan­tly white student population­s grew more Black and brown over the years.

Floyd’s murder “accelerate­d the conversati­on,” Green said, referring to racial justice activism that had been picking up momentum since the mass shooting in a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 and the “Unite the Right” rally by white supremacis­ts in Charlottes­ville, Virginia, in 2017 that left one person dead. “A generation of individual­s who protested that finally had their voices heard in the 2020 moment. … Sadly, Charleston and Charlottes­ville weren’t enough.”

These days Sanchez-Viafara, the Alexandria student, is studying political science and sociology at nearby George Washington University. Looking back, she says, her experience on the Identity Project has been formative, and not only because it inspired her choice of majors.

“When we talk about racial justice, and we talk about activism, there’s often a sense of futility that comes with it, and a sense of cynicism. … We see that something needs to be changed but nothing gets done. That was one of the first moments in my life where I started change, I worked toward the change, and then I ended up seeing it.”

 ?? PROVIDED BY THE BROOKS FAMILY ?? Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School honors a former teacher who fought segregatio­n as a student.
PROVIDED BY THE BROOKS FAMILY Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School honors a former teacher who fought segregatio­n as a student.
 ?? ALIA WONG/USA TODAY ?? George Mason Elementary School in Richmond, Va., was renamed last year for Henry L. Marsh III, a civil rights lawyer. In 1977, Marsh became the first Black mayor of Richmond, once the capital of the Confederac­y.
ALIA WONG/USA TODAY George Mason Elementary School in Richmond, Va., was renamed last year for Henry L. Marsh III, a civil rights lawyer. In 1977, Marsh became the first Black mayor of Richmond, once the capital of the Confederac­y.
 ?? PROVIDED BY ALEXANDRIA CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS ?? Thomas Chambliss Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. – the inspiratio­n behind the 2000 biographic­al sports film “Remember the Titans” – had its name changed in July 2021.
PROVIDED BY ALEXANDRIA CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS Thomas Chambliss Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. – the inspiratio­n behind the 2000 biographic­al sports film “Remember the Titans” – had its name changed in July 2021.

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