HANOVER — About 75 people gathered at the Hanover County courthouse complex on Tuesday, Aug. 20, for what was described as a community press conference regarding recent actions taken by the Hanover NAACP.
The week before, the group filed a lawsuit against the Hanover County School Board and Hanover County regarding the names of two schools in the county and the imagery and mascots associated with them.
The suit alleges forcing children to attend schools with names like Lee-Davis Confederates and Stonewall Jackson Rebels is a violation of the First Amendment guaranteed protection against compelled speech.
An attorney representing the plaintiff said the suit outlines violations regarding the Equal Protection Amendment and also violates the Equal Education Act. The suit cites both First and Fourteenth Amendment violations.
Hanover County NAACP president Robert Barnette said the school names and imagery represent an atmosphere of exclusion and sends a continuing message to the African American community.
“Students at both schools are forced to glorify the Confederacy and its leadership, which are intertwined with the history of slavery in America and today are used as symbols of racial oppression,” Barnette said.
After numerous efforts to force the school board to change the names, he said the local NAACP chapter filed a lawsuit.
“Four days ago, the Hanover Unit of the NAACP filed a lawsuit with the county and the school board to change these names and take other steps to address the climate that denies African American students equal education,” Barnette said.
Avi Hopkins attended Lee-Davis and starred on its football field, but said even those moments of personal achievement were tinged with a recurring message.
“Even when I made a nice run, I would have to get up and hear the announcer say ‘First down Confederates’,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins said he treasures the bonds made with his teammates and expressed hope that the entire campus could one day enjoy the same type of relationships.
Hopkins said the naming of the schools in 1959 was less of an attempt to memorialize the leaders, but more a clear conveyance of a message that African American students “were not welcome.”
“These men were on the wrong side of history,” Hopkins said, referring to the three Confederate leaders. “They made decisions that have negatively impacted generations of Americans.”
Hopkins described his years from 1990 to 1994 at Lee-Davis with mixed emotions. While he formed lasting friendships and enjoyed his years on campus, he never felt fully included in a community that did not accept him.
“On one hand, I did make great friends and connected with people on a personal level,” Hopkins said. “On the other side of that, I felt very isolated and there were situations where I did to feel part of the community.”
He said he routinely experienced racial slurs and seeing racial epitaphs displayed on the campus.
Harold Stills was the first African American teacher at Lee-Davis High School.
Arriving in 1966, Stills said the mascot and names relayed a message that made minority students feel excluded.
Stills said African American students would not participate in cheerleading because they didn’t want to cheer for Confederates.
“The time has come and the time has passed that the names should be changed at both Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson,” Stills said.
Hopkins agreed. “I applaud the NAACP for their courage to continue pushing to set right what has been wrong for too long.”
County and school officials have not responded to the pending lawsuit, citing county policy that disallows such comments.
The school board did take action in a meeting on Aug. 13, expressing a willingness to enter mediation regarding the issue.
Barnette hinted that might have been too little too late.
“We don’t know exactly what they meant,” he said. “We’ve been down this road before and the issue was not resolved.”
But Barnette and attorneys representing the local chapter all expressed a desire to settle the case before it reaches the trial stage.
“The door is still open,” Barnette said.