It’s become trendy in the last couple of years to propose renaming schools that bear the names of Confederate figures of importance. I support this trend because it first and foremost allows those whose values have evolved since the 1860s and 1950s to put their stamp on their communities. In Hanover County, Virginia, people are starting to talk about renaming Lee-Davis High School, so let’s take a look at the school’s namesakes.
Robert E. Lee was born in 1807 in Virginia, and he died in 1870 in Virginia. He lived in Virginia all of his life, except when he was off serving in the military. He served in the military forces of the United States from 1829 to 1861, and he served the Confederate government’s army from 1861 to 1865.
By the end of the US Civil War, he was the general in charge of the entire Confederate army, and resistance against the United States collapsed after he surrendered his command to US forces at Appomattox Courthouse in April, 1865. Due to what is widely attributed as a clerical error, his citizenship in the United States wasn’t restored during his lifetime. Congress restored his citizenship in 1975, backdating it 110 years.
Lee was a military officer of distinction, having excelled at the United States Military Academy (aka West Point) and served in the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. He opposed the construction of memorials to his fellow rebels following the Civil War and supported the reestablishment of the pre-Civil War nation. However, he opposed racial equality and publicly spoke out against voting rights for former slaves throughout the remainder of his life.
Jefferson Davis was born in Kentucky in 1808, and he died in Louisiana in 1889. He lived in various places in the south, including a stint in Richmond, Virginia, when he was president of the ill-fated Confederate States of America (1861-65). He continued to live in Virginia until 1867, when he was released from prison. Following his time in prison, Davis lived in Quebec, not returning to the US until President Andrew Johnson issued him a pardon in 1868. He then moved to Tennessee, where he ran an insurance company. He lived on an estate (bequeathed to him by a wealthy widow) in Biloxi, Mississippi, during his final years.
Davis continued to espouse racist and divisive rhetoric to the end of his days, though he did so primarily in private. His several attempts to return to legislative service following his pardon and return to the US failed.
In 1958, Virginia was caught up in the torrent of the civil rights movement. The US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision led to the forced integration of public schools across the country. The response to this legal order by the governor of Virginia, Harry Byrd, was the establishment of Massive Resistance. Instead of obeying the Supreme Court, Byrd and his supporters in Virginia’s legislature effectively shut down as much of Virginia’s public education system as they could as a way to prevent Virginia’s black school-age children from receiving an education equal in quality – and with equal access – to that of their white contemporaries.
Also in 1958, Hanover County, Virginia, was nearly finished constructing a brand-new high school along US Highway 360. The high school was the newest in the county; located in the town of Mechanicsville, the residents were justifiably proud of its construction. They chose to call the new educational facility Lee-Davis High School. At the time, naming public schools after Confederate figures was common practice across the southern states as a way to push back against the growing tide of the civil rights movement, and anybody that opposed the name of the new school would have remained silent about it, possibly out of fear for their personal safety. The Lee-Davis Confederates became a centerpiece of Mechanicsville life, and the school’s mission “to prepare students for success” remains, for all intents and purposes, a clearly obtainable objective in the 21st century.
(To be perfectly honest, I find the naming of schools after any person to be ridiculous. New York City has the right idea with its Public School Number system. There’s no reason Lee-Davis couldn’t have been called Mechanicsville High School when it was built, or even Hanover County High School Number 2, both of which would have been both descriptive and adequate.)
Two of Hanover County’s other high schools – Atlee HS (1991) and Hanover HS (2003) – have simple, descriptive names that denote their location rather than singling out any individual for the honor of a name plate. The county’s other high school that opened in 1959, Patrick Henry HS, came about by consolidating four small schools into one. PHHS is named after Hanover County’s most famous resident, the American Revolutionary War figure Patrick Henry – you know, the “give me liberty or give me death” guy. He was also Virginia’s first governor following the establishment of the United States of America. Henry was born in Hanover County – in Studley, as a matter of fact, which is about five miles from my house. He lived his whole life in the state and died in Virginia, and though he was a slave owner, he actively supported efforts to end the importation of slaves into the USA.
If you have to name a school after a person, Hanover County got it right when they named Patrick Henry High School. Henry was a prominent, positive figure in American history, one that – despite his status as a slave owner – we can all respect. He also is from the county of the school that bears his name. It’s as appropriate a name as can be found, although West Hanover County High School would have been perfectly acceptable.
It’s time to eliminate the names of Confederate figures from our public education facilities. It’s time to allow all students to have and show pride in their schools and their schools’ mascots. The idea of black students at Lee-Davis cheering on their schoolmates under the moniker of the Confederates disgusts me to no end. While I can see why Robert E. Lee’s name would be attached to a school in Virginia, there is no reason to put Jefferson Davis’ name on any public education building in the state for the simple fact that he’s not from here, he lived here only briefly, spent part of that time in prison, and the only reason his name was attached to the school in the first place was to reinforce the dominance of the white population of the state over its black population during a time of social upheaval.
Instead of continuing the support the legacy of those who fought to preserve slavery (Lee and Davis) and those who fought to preserve educational segregation (Byrd), it’s time to support the legacy of local kids and the hope for the future they hold in their young hands and minds.
Change the name of Lee-Davis High School to Mechanicsville High School and put the establishment of a new mascot to a public vote in the school’s district.