By John Harvey
Several community activists and alumni of Hanover County Public School addressed the School Board about a potential name change with two schools with ties to the Confederacy.
Hueina Su, co-chair of Together Hanover and Hanover NAACP president Eddie Davis were among nearly 10 people that spoke during public comment period to urge the board to pursue changing the names of Stonewall Jackson Middle School and Lee-Davis High School.
Together Hanover and the Lee-Davis alumni coalition presented a petition to the board with approximately 1,500 signatures from former students, current students and faculty members who support changing the school’s moniker: General Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.
“We would like to express support for the petition that is being submitted here tonight from members of the greater Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School asking for a name change,” Su said. “Several of our members have contacted the School Board in recent months, asking for a name change. Unfortunately, those letters and meetings were not met with any action, so tonight, we are asking formally that some sort of action be taken.”
This isn’t the first time a request like this has been made to the Hanover School Board. Last August, a grassroots campaign from former students debated whether the school should change its name and mascot.
Lee-Davis opened in 1958 as part of the massive resistance movement to fight integration of schools. Nearly a decade later, Stonewall Jackson Junior High was named the same year that Hanover Public Schools were finally integrated in 1969.
“These schools are multi-cultural and diverse,” said Eddie Nelson, Hanover President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “If students deserve a school name that represents the vision of the United States. As a society, in which all individuals have equal rights and not ties to slavery and white supremacy.”
According to the school’s mission statement, the school’s goal has been and will continue to create a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment for all students. The Code of Conduct recognizes the importance of the dignity and worth of each individual and believes it should provide an atmosphere of mutual respect and conducive to teaching and learning in which intellectual, physical, emotional and social growth compliments the moral and spiritual needs of the student population.
Su, whose two children graduated from Hanover County Public Schools, believes Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson hurt that goal.
“Confederate named schools and mascots promote and support ideals representing white supremacy and the enslavement of African-Americans, which by definition, are not inclusive or welcoming,” she said. “As the historical facts show, the name was intended to achieve the opposite effect. As such, they do not demonstrate value and respect for all students, not do such names and mascots allow for an environment of healthy and positive intellectual, physical, emotional and social growth, for any students. Such names interfere with students’ ability to thrive academically and as human beings.”
Nannie Davis, who attended Lee-Davis High school from 1965 to 1967, shared her experiences with the board as an African-American student at the school.
“My one-word description is sad,” Davis said. “I had no significant problems academically, however, because I knew Virginia history, it was difficult to feel like a part of a school named Lee-Davis.”
Davis admitted that she did not take part in extra-curricular activities during her two years at the school, but attended all pep-rallies held during the school day with much trepidation.
“It was so humiliating because they would play ‘Dixie” and the students would all stand and clap their hands to the rhythm of the song,” she said. “I could only sit there and watch in horror. To top if off, there was one student who would always do a ‘Rebel Yell” and would parade around the floor with a Confederate flag.”
She noted that she could not wear her school ring because it had an engraved Confederate flag and picture of General Lee and Jefferson Davis on it and did not want to display support for the Confederate cause.
“The pain it caused, no child should be made to bear,” she said. “You know, it’s been 50 years (since I graduated), but I still feel the pain. Think about it.”
Amanda Sesko and Mahri Jones had similar experiences with a school that did not represent them.
Sesko graduated in 2010 and went on to college in Boston at Suffolk University. It was not until she went off to school where she experienced what the power of diversity could do for a community like Hanover.
“Given the social climate we are faced with today, I believe now is the appropriate time to make some positive changes that will benefit our entire community, while also setting examples for other populations to then follow,” Sesko said. “Many members of the community are desperate for change that will let everyone know they are welcome here. The time has come to have this tough, but important conversation.”
Sesko admitted there were “many instances” of blatant racial hostility toward people of color during her time at Lee-Davis.
“It started the second you parked your car in the parking lot and walked past redneck row,” she said. “Most vehicles were plastered in confederate imagery, some with massive confederate flags in their truck beds.”
It continued inside the school when she walked in the front door and saw giant flags that read L-D tradition and pride.
“As years went by and my understanding of what it meant to be a Lee-Davis Confederate grew, it became nearly impossible for me to want to represent my alma mater,” Sesko said. “It’s a shame because I did receive such a great education and I had so many awesome memories there.”
Mahri Jones grew up in Northern Virginia before her family moved to Mechanicsville in 1999 for her junior and senior year. Like Sesko, Jones admits facing some culture shock on her first day at Lee-Davis.
“For me, this was a life-changing experience,” Jones said. “My first day that I went to Lee-Davis, my experience was a little shocking. I walked into a school for the first time where there were three tables to my left that were just where the black kids sat, and the rest were white. That was obviously not the school’s rule, but it was just kind of the way that it happened and that’s been a pretty consistent vibe over the years.”
Jones now owns her own saloon in Mechanicsville and has her own family, but said not much has changed. She still sees segregation and mistreatment has continued to another generation.
“I have a bi-racial daughter myself and I believe that the ability for a minority child to have a mascot that they would be proud of is vital right now. It is that personal for some of us, for black and white.”
“I beg you. Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson were brave me and were chosen to lead in their time. IN this time of 2017, it is you has been chosen to lead and make these decisions. For the sake of your entire community, and the entire Richmond Tri-Cities area, I humbly ask that you continue to make decisions that will best represent the entire community and not just one.”
Amanda Lineberry grew up in Mechanicsville and attended both Stonewall Jackson and Lee-Davis. She was a track and field standout for both schools and still holds the record in the mile at both levels.
She is part of the alumni coalition that supports a name change and presented a case to change the name.
“Continuing to glorify symbols of the Confederacy in school’s names and mascots directly contradicts the (school division’s) goals,” Lineberry said. “We are inspired by Quioccasin Middle School, formally Harry Byrd Middle School in our neighboring Henrico County, and members of that community can testify to the positive results following the change.”
Lineberry was asked by another alumnus, Ryan Leach, to speak on the coalition’s behalf, but had some trepidation in doing so.
“When Ryan asked me to personally present this statement, I hesitated, because I know that many of my friends and family will disagree with me,” Lineberry said. “I said yes, because I received an excellent education in Hanover, which helped me receive a scholarship to the University of Richmond and acceptance into the University of Virginia School of Law. I said yes because my track teammates are still my nearest and dearest friend and because I cherished my time at Stonewall and Lee-Davis. It is out of that love, that I hope to see them changed for the better.”
In August, Lineberry was in Charlottesville providing legal support for counter protesters during the Neo-Nazi march at the University of Virginia.
“The tragedy hit closer to home,” she said. “I looked into the eyes of the Neo-Nazi’s as they surrounded the statue of Robert E. Lee and there was nothing but hatred there. No matter how you feel about the legacy of the Confederacy or the legacy of any Confederate General, it is impossible to deny that Confederate symbolism is inextricably linked to white supremacist terrorist.”
“This link makes it unjust that a public school continue to be named after a Confederate leader and rally around Confederate symbols,” Lineberry continued. “Support this change does not require that we all feel the same about the Confederacy. It requires that you not force students to have “C-Fed Pride”, knowing that white supremacist with “C-Fed Pride” invaded a town an hour down the road and took the life of a young woman. It requires that you recognize and respect the dignity of those who may disagree with you and foster an educational environment where they can thrive too.”
Charlie Wilson, another Lee-Davis alum spoke in support of changing the name of his alma mater. Wilson graduated from Cornell University with a degree in urban and regional studies and returned to Hanover to work on construction.
His family has ties to the Civil War, as his great, great, great, grandfather fought in the Confederate Army.
“As an immigrant mason in Southwest Virginia, he was swept up by a war, I believe, far greater than himself,” Wilson said. “I value my heritage and I’m always striving for a better understanding of our complicated history.”
“What I don’t value is false idolization,” Wilson continued. “I do sincerely believe that Robert E. Lee was, on the battlefield, one of the greatest military leaders ever born onto this continent. He kept the Confederate Army afloat far longer then what their lack of food, men and infrastructure warranted. The ultimate cause of preserving slavery was logistically impossible and morally unjust.”
He said long before the events in Charleston, S.C. and Charlottesville, he found his high school’s name and mascot to be “unnecessary” and horrible.”
“Often when I tell people that I went to a school named Lee-Davis and moreover, that our mascot was named, the Confederates, their faces fall in disbelief and their hearts sink. What they must imagine of what could have been to a truly backwards high-school experience. It’s unfair to every member of our community, present and past.”
As per School Board policy, members are not allowed to comment on issues brought up during the public comment period. Susan B. Dibble, chair of the Hanover County School Board, thanked all the speakers for their presentations and left them with this message.
“We assure you that we will carefully consider your thoughts moving forward,” Dibble said.
Nelson believes it’s important to act swiftly.
“We want to create a better environment for students now,” Davis said. “This change cannot be put off. This change does not erase history. We want to preserve the history of Lee-Davis High School and its role in Massive Resistance the right way, such as with plaques and displays, without imposing the name, mascot and colors on students.”
“The decision to change the name of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School is a moral question about justice, equality, human rights and reconciliation,” he continued. “The Hanover County NAACP calls on the School Board to change the name of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School now and include students, alumni and community partners as part of the decision-making process. We know that this School Board did not name these schools, but it is your obligation to correct this moral issue.”