MECHANICSVILLE -- Thunder, lightning and a torrential downpour couldn’t deter hundreds of citizens from attending an NAACP-sponsored rally and march held Friday afternoon in Mechanicsville.
The Juneteenth Celebration featured several speakers, including Hanover NAACP president Robert Barnette who voiced a list of demands for HCPS officials, including the changing of two school names in Hanover County.
“We want to make sure these names are changed right now,” Barnette said. “We want to make sure that Dr. Jerome Ross is appointed to the Hanover [County] School Board. We want to make sure that black and brown faculty members are hired in Hanover County, right now.”
The group marched from the Mechanicsville Library to Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School, chanting and displaying signs demanding change.
“We had an excellent turnout today,” Barnette said. “It shows it’s time for a change, and I’m glad that people stayed through the rain and showed their commitment to this cause.”
Barnette said the demand for change has gathered momentum since it began two years ago. “We’re seeing more and more people come forward and speak out. When we first began, people were afraid to speak out. Now, they’re speaking out and supporting this effort.”
Sophie Lynn, a Lee-Davis student, began a change.org petition that gathered more than 20,000 signatures in favor of the name changes.
“As I’ve been watching the Black Lives Matter movement grow, I’m so excited to hear about the Confederate statues in Richmond being taken down,” she said.
Lynn said she began her petition to raise awareness regarding the names and mascots at the two schools, and their impact on African-American students. “I want people to know how unfair and demeaning it is for these black students and teachers to have to call themselves Confederates.”
She said the petition represents “20,000 people who live in Hanover and are waiting for change.”
“It’s time to make these racists uncomfortable,” Lynn said. “It’s time to tell them they have no place in Hanover County, especially in our schools. Change is coming whether they like it or not.”
Another student, Samantha Whitlock, assisted in organizing the event with local NAACP leaders. She also emceed the rally.
Lee-Davis alumnus Avi Hopkins said the name changes are long overdue, and told the group he felt the brunt of the racially insensitive symbols during his years on campus.
“It’s time to make this change. It’s time to change these names,” Hopkins said as he reminded the crowd of the significance of June 19th and its history.
Dr. John Kenney of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Beaverdam delivered an inspirational message to the rain-soaked gathering, a call to action before the march began.
The pastor said the liberty demanded by Hanoverian Patrick Henry was not extended to all Americans.
“I want to remind you on this date of June 19 that July 4 did not bring independence or liberty to people of color,” Kenney said.
He addressed those who said changing the names is too expensive and would challenge an already tight budget.
“If you use budget as an excuse, it means that your priority is the budget, not the brutality.”
Kenney challenged local church leaders, police and school officials to do the right thing and support changes to racial injustice.
“Any people who are going to be as good as they can be are always self-defining and stripping the authority of any past that dictates their future, because they believe that no matter how good I was, there is more,” Kenney said.
But the real message of the march was exhibited in the 400 people who braved challenging weather and the threat of counter-protests to ensure their voices were heard.
There were small groups of people who identified themselves as L-DHS alumni gathered along the way expressing their desire for the school names to remain, but sheriff’s deputies reported no incidents.
One marcher who was escorted by his wife and two kids said the event provided an important lesson for his children. “I want them to know that peaceful protest can produce positive change,” he said as the march began.
Hanover County Board of Supervisors members Faye Prichard, Ashland District, and Canova Peterson, Mechanicsville District, attended the rally.
Peterson said he attended because he wanted to hear the group’s concerns and support their right to peaceful protest.
“I didn’t hear anything here today that wasn’t heartfelt,” Peterson said while acknowledging passionate opinions on both sides of the name change issue.
The veteran supervisor noted that the county has announced that when a new school is built to replace Lee-Davis and Stonewall, the names will change.
“I think we’re really talking about a timeline,” Peterson said. “We’ve already started the process of relocating these schools and they will have different names. It’s just a matter of how long that will take.”
Peterson said the peaceful protests are living testament to the Hanover community.
“This protest today is a shining example of what Hanover is. These people are protesting the right way,” Peterson said. “There are two stories out here and I just wish everyone would talk to each other.”
He also said some who prefer keeping the names may be motivated by personal or emotional attachment to their alma mater.
“I just think they want to keep the names because that’s where they went to school.”