Alia Wong and Neena Hagen, USA Today, November 10, 2022
It wasn’t until her junior year that Ashley Sanchez-Viafara learned the truth behind her high school’s racist namesake.
The 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 Sanchez-Viafara. 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 embarking on an effort 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 uptick in the number of schools abandoning racist namesakes.
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.
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 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 successful coup that left scores of Black residents dead.
Roughly half of the schools in USA TODAY’s database were renamed after individuals, 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.
Back in Alexandria, amid the wave of global 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, a former teacher who fought segregation as a student.
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 convinced them not to drop out and to apply themselves in class.
Society’s decision-makers 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. This naming phenomenon 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.