After failing last year to persuade the Hanover County School Board to change the name of two schools commemorating Confederate leaders, the county’s NAACP branch filed a federal lawsuit Friday challenging the notion that the names are harmless.
The suit alleges that the names of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School violate the constitutional rights of African American students and their families by making them feel unwelcome and creating an unequal learning environment.
The suit, which could potentially provide a framework for other legal action across the country, asserts that the school names make the plaintiffs “identify” with names and mascots that tacitly endorse the pro-slavery Confederacy.
“This is a case to redress the creation of a hostile and discriminatory environment for African American students that erodes their right to receive an education and to be free from compelled speech they consider vile,” the lawsuit states.
The Hanover NAACP branch and other activists began petitioning to change the names of Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson after white nationalists held a violent rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 to protest the planned removal of a statue honoring Robert E. Lee.
Heightened awareness around racial injustice and white nationalism in recent years has led to more strident calls for the removal of Confederate monuments and names on public buildings.
Richmond Public Schools last year changed the name of J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School, replacing the name of the Confederate cavalry commander with that of former President Barack Obama.
The lawsuit in Hanover says there were 31 public schools in Virginia named for Confederate leaders at the start of 2018, and 18 have since been removed.
The dissent over school names has extended beyond Confederate leaders and icons.
In Henrico County three years ago, school officials agreed to change the name of Harry F. Byrd Middle School to Quioccasin Middle School over objections to the former Virginia governor and senator’s opposition to desegregating Virginia schools.
In Hanover, an official school system survey found that three-fourths of the roughly 13,000 respondents supported keeping the Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson names. In April 2018, the Hanover School Board voted 5-2 against renaming the two schools.
Though it has been more than a year since the School Board voted against the idea, the ouster in late June of a board member who voted to change the school names — followed a few weeks later by a Ku Klux Klan rally near the county courthouse on U.S. 301 — thrust the issue back into the spotlight.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t think the school system is really concerned about African Americans going to the two schools,” said Hanover NAACP President Robert Barnette. “It’s always been one of the options that we’ve looked at. It just happened to be something that we decided to move forward with now.”
Hanover Board of Supervisors Chairman Canova Peterson declined to comment when reached by phone Friday. School Board Chairman Roger Bourassa could not be reached.
In addition to citing the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, the lawsuit says the names are violating the First Amendment by forcing student-athletes, teams and clubs to wear uniforms that pay homage to the Confederacy. The nickname for Lee-Davis is the Confederates and, for Stonewall Jackson, it’s the Rebels.
The suit says several families are looking to send their students to other schools and that some students have declined to play on sports teams because they do not want to honor those names and what they represent.
The Hanover schools are named for two Confederate generals — Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson — and Jefferson Davis, the only president of the short-lived Confederate States of America.
The names for both schools came about during Massive Resistance, when officials around the state fought against the Supreme Court’s order to end school segregation.
Lee-Davis opened in 1959 and remained white-only until 1963. The lawsuit says the school did not become fully desegregated until 1969, a decade and a half after the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Stonewall Jackson Middle School, which opened in 1968, was also named for a Confederate leader to let African American students know they were not welcome at the school, the suit alleges.
African Americans make up about 10% of the population at each school and across the whole district, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
Richard Schragger, a University of Virginia law professor whose area of expertise covers the Constitution, said the lawsuit bears some similarities to arguments that have been made in court for the removal of Confederate monuments and flags. But a key difference in the Hanover lawsuit is that it deals with public schools that children have to attend, he said.
While it could be argued that Confederate monuments and memorials can be ignored, students in many cases have no choice but to attend their local public school and wear its colors if they wish to participate in most sports or activities.
“It goes one step further than the monuments or the flag because it has a compulsory component to it,” he said. “There’s an element of coercion that’s not present in those other cases.”
Barnette, the NAACP branch president, said he hopes winning the case will inspire other communities grappling with similar concerns over the names of their schools and public institutions.
“If they’re experiencing the same kind of atmosphere” in their schools, Barnette said, “we hope that they can use this case as a model to change their policies.”
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs in Washington filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on behalf of the Hanover NAACP.