In 1966, Harold Stills became the first black teacher at Lee-Davis High School, assuming the double consciousness that footnote required.
“I heard the stories and felt the pain of some of my students,” he told the Hanover County School Board on Tuesday. “I had a good tenure at Lee-Davis. However, I never yelled ‘go Confederates’ at a pep rally even though I rooted for my team at games.”
“This issue is not going away,” he said. “The issues that these Confederate generals fought to uphold will never have appeal to a black person. One segment of the population should not tell another to just ‘get over it’ when those persons’ ancestors have suffered such an atrocity as slavery.”
But a recent survey by Hanover County Public Schools suggests that more than 76 percent of the respondents — out of 13,374 — are saying just that.
Among the reasons respondents cited for keeping the names and mascots of Lee-Davis High (named for Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis) and Stonewall Jackson Middle School (“Home of the Rebels”) were “preserving history,” “heritage and tradition,” and “names/mascots are not racist and/or changing names/mascots won’t resolve any racism issues that do exist.”
All those reasons are debatable if not downright dubious.
The Lost Cause narrative that made heroes out of Lee and Davis is a fraudulent rewrite of history. The Confederacy, in its own words, was undeniably racist. Lee-Davis opened in 1959, during Virginia’s era of Massive Resistance as a school intended for white students only.
To change these names resolves at least two acts of racism.
But that’s my opinion. Let’s hear from Kelly Carter Merrill, an Ashland-area resident with two children in the Hanover school district.
Merrill is a facilitator for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) process. Richmond’s Initiatives of Change, known locally as Hope in the Cities, is one of the organizations in 14 communities nationwide named last year as recipients of a Kellogg TRHT grant to — among other things — “address the historic and contemporary effects of racism.”
I wondered: Wouldn’t the situation in Hanover benefit more from third-party mediation than a survey conducted by a school district heavily invested — through appointment, employment or politics — in the status quo?
Thursday, I contacted Merrill — a 2017 Hope in the Cities Community Trustbuilding Fellow — to ask what role such a process could play in addressing the name-change issue at the two Mechanicsville schools.
“To my knowledge, the School Board has not reached out to Hope in the Cities,” said Merrill, who has done facilitating for the organization but is otherwise not affiliated with it. “It’s just my hope that they will seriously consider it.”
Jennifer Greif, Hanover’s assistant superintendent for instructional leadership, said the School Board asked the administration to collect community input “as one piece to consider.” She called the survey “just one piece of the puzzle” to be discussed at the board’s work session Thursday.
As for the consideration of a third-party facilitator, “the School Board did not direct us to go that route,” Greif said.
If any situation requires building trust, it’s the debate over the propriety of Confederate monuments, schools and highways in an nation that’s never come to terms with the legacy of slavery and the contradictions of such memorials.
Merrill brings more than a facilitating background to the table. As her middle name would suggest, she’s from an old Virginia family whose members fought against the British in the Revolutionary War and against the Union in the Civil War. Family members owned slaves and Robert E. Lee is in her family tree, she told me.
No one could call her an outsider who should be reflexively dismissed from this conversation. And dialogue, she said, is exactly what this situation needs.
“It’s a contentious issue in our community. Emotions are high. People don’t feel understood ... on many sides,” she said.
“I just don’t want to say two sides, because there’s not two sides. It’s really nuanced. I have heritage — the same heritage the name-keepers claim — and I have a different perspective on it. And whatever they decide, people will be upset and outraged if we don’t go through some sort of dialogue or some sort of healing” that addresses the history involved, she said.
“Trained facilitators and dialogue shift the conversation to understanding, not winning,” Merrill said. “To me that’s the difference between dialogue and debate.”
Members of Together Hanover, which has advocated for the name change at the schools, had asked for an independent organization to come in and help with the process, said Rachel Levy, a Hanover parent and group member.
They weren’t enamored of the survey’s name requirement — which they fear had a chilling effect — and dubious about its methodology and control. They say they had no input in the survey and aren’t sure how it will be used.
“A third-party facilitator I think would help advance the cause in getting a fairer decision or a conclusion of the matter,” said Robert Barnette, president of the Hanover NAACP.
Barnette described the survey results as validating that the names are a problem, noting that more than a third of the school district’s faculty and staff find the names objectionable.
Levy says the issue shouldn’t be defined by the demographics of Hanover, which is 87 percent white.
“I don’t care if they’re zero black people in Hanover County. It’s not good for my kids to be taught to honor the Confederacy and a system of white supremacy,” she said.
“We don’t want to legitimize this survey as a decision-maker. This is a moral question.”
And until the school district truly addresses the historic and contemporary effects of racism, with honesty and empathy, this issue is not going away.