Student seeks new name for Byrd M.S.

Metro Richmond has a rich racial history. One man, Arthur Ashe, has been a point of pride for the region – his statue sits on Monument Avenue in Richmond to commemorate his courage in breaking racial barriers during his unprecedented tennis career.

Another man’s name adorns the front of a Henrico school, but some citizens aren’t as willing to celebrate the history he contributed.

Harry F. Byrd Middle School, part of the Henrico County public school system, is named after the 50th governor of Virginia, who also represented the state in the U.S. Senate for 22 years. His time as a governor is characterized by the “massive resistance” policy he used to fight federally mandated school desegregation in the 1950s and ‘60s.

That’s the history that some citizens, particularly Hermitage High School senior Jordan Chapman, feel is not worthy of the recognition it is currently receiving.

Chapman, whose father attended Byrd, has started gathering signatures for a petition to change the name of the school by standing outside of Hermitage football games. To Chapman, it is an unacceptable contradiction to name an educational institution after a man who fought to keep whites and minorities in separate schools.

“Suddenly it just dawned on me, ‘You know, this probably isn’t a person a school should be named after,’” she said.

Chapman presented her petition of about 500 signatures at the Nov. 12 School Board meeting. Board members told her to continue to gather support but were ambiguous about how much support was needed for a change to be considered. She has since transitioned to an online petition and plans to attend the Dec. 10 board meeting as well.

‘This doesn’t sound quite right’
Ann Marie Leake, the mother of a current Byrd student, has helped Chapman raise awareness. This past summer, Leake was hesitant to send her son, who is now in sixth grade, to Byrd because of the history associated with its name. She joined Chapman’s cause after reading about her petition in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“I’m one of those people who drives past the school and the sign every day and never gave it a thought until I knew my son would be attending the school,” Leake said. “It sits in the back of your mind and then you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, this doesn’t sound quite right.’”

The School Board has taken notice of Chapman and Leake’s efforts. Tuckahoe District member Lisa Marshall, whose district includes Byrd, spoke highly of Chapman in an email.

“[T]he Board has been impressed by her thoughtfulness and diligence,” Marshall wrote, “as well as the professional manner in which she’s brought this matter to the public’s attention.”

Marshall also mentioned that this situation is unique, because the School Board had never handled a request to rename a school before. The board does have a policy for the renaming of schools, though, part of which reads:

“The naming or renaming of any schools or school facilities will be preceded by a minimum period of one month during which representatives of the community may submit suggestions to the School Board for consideration. . . The School Board may, at its discretion, waive the one month notice period to name or rename any sub-part of a school or school facility at the request of a community organization or representatives of the area served by the school.”

‘Who are these schools beholden to?’
Bertram Ashe, a professor of American Studies and English at the University of Richmond whose expertise includes race, warned that Chapman’s petition could be dangerous to history. While he is in favor of her efforts and hopes she is successful in changing the school’s name, he said that remembering history, whether positive or negative, is important.

“One of the things that this country struggles with is a kind of amnesia where things get changed and then people just forget,” Ashe said. “Subsequent generations just don’t know because previous generations have forgotten.”

Ashe also questioned the framework of Henrico County in how it names schools and whom its schools are meant to serve.

“To me it raises the question, ‘Who are these schools beholden to?’” he said. “Are they beholden to the students and the families of those students who attend the school? Is it their school? Or is it beholden to history and a kind of acknowledgement of what this city once was, and in certain circumstances still is, as signaled by people like Byrd being the person that the school is named after?”

Chapman and Leake have organized their efforts in the wake of numerous racially charged movements and events in the U.S., such as the “Black Lives Matter” campaign and the racially motivated shooting earlier this year in Charleston, S.C. The two have been careful, though, about equating their protest with others.

“We can’t separate the events of the summer from the thought processes that led us here,” Leake said. “But at the same time, we want to make it clear that this is separate from that because this isn’t about a symbol or something that some group of people still holds dear.

“This is about a direct contradiction between what this man stood for, as far as public education, and what the school should be standing for.”
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Central Virginia Educational Resource Programs (CVERP), a local nonprofit organization assisting disadvantaged communities in Richmond, will sponsor an Autumn Festival for kids ages 4-12 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Belmont Recreation Center, 1600 Hilliard Rd. Activities include coloring, games and dancing. There will be prizes and refreshments. Come dressed as your favorite character. For details, contact Erika Brandon at 677-9020 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Full text

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