Our View: Time for a new name

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T.C. Williams High School (Photo Credit: Aleksandra Kochurova)
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We have been saying for more than two years that the name T.C. Williams should be removed from Alexandria’s only high school.

The three-part series Jim McElhatton wrote in the Alexandria Times about attempts to integrate the city’s public schools back in the late 1950s made it abundantly clear that then-superintendent T.C. Williams was an ardent segregationist.

We said then, and repeat now, that a school with a 78 percent minority population should not bear the name of a documented racist. It seems a shame that a romanticized Disney movie, “Remember the Titans,” has led some people to argue that Williams’ name should remain on the school in perpetuity.

We understand that there are difficulties involved in changing the name of a school, both emotional and practical. For alumni in particular, and also current students of the school, a name change will be unsettling. When people are asked “Where did you go to school?” they won’t know which name to give – and neither the old name nor the new one, whatever it is, will feel right. There’s also a monetary cost involved in a name change and the rebranding that will become necessary.

Both the financial and emotional costs of a name change are real. But in light of the nationwide movement for equity following George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer, those reasons no longer justify keeping the name of T.C. Williams on the school.

Let’s have the discussion this summer, let the school board decide on a new name and have that name in place when school reopens this fall. The new name that adorns the school is less important than getting the current name off of the school.

If the school board wants to play it safe and not offend anyone, they can go bland like city council did in declining to attach a name to the new section of Waterfront Park and simply rename it Alexandria High School.

Attaching a name to the school would be more meaningful though. Options include the placeholder name on a petition being circulated, Tubman-Chavez, which would enable the initials T.C. to remain. Two potential candidates are mentioned in letters to the editor on the following pages: The Rev. Fields Cook and Jerry “Sarge” Murray, and Petey Jones has also been proposed.

We have another potential name to add to the list – Miller High School – honoring three prominent black Alexandrians: Helen Miller, Melvin Miller and his wife Eula Miller.

Helen Miller advocated for the rights of black residents to be hired into the city’s fire and police departments. She also picketed the all-white Alexandria Boys Club to admit black children. Her efforts played a large role in the eventual merger of that club with the all-black Olympic Boys Club. The City of Alexandria conducted an oral history interview with Helen Miller in 1999, which can be read at www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/history/OralHistoryMillerHelen.pdf.

Melvin Miller was one of the “Secret Seven,” a group formed during the civil rights era and composed of men who were seen as leaders in Alexandria’s black community. Melvin Miller often served as the group’s spokesman. It is widely believed in Alexandria that the city pledged to the Secret Seven to never install lights at T.C. Williams High School.

A civil rights attorney, Melvin Miller worked for many years at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and its predecessor agency. He also served on the board, including many years as chair, of the Alexandria Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

Eula Miller, Melvin’s wife, was a leading Alexandrian in her own right. According to Alexandria Living Legends, to which Eula and Melvin Miller were named in 2009 (https://alexandrialegends.org/eula-melvin-miller/), Eula Miller earned her master’s degree in education from George Washington University, taught school and eventually became head of the Northern Virginia Community College’s Early Childhood Education Program.

We think all three Millers are greatly deserving of having their names adorn an Alexandria school. But removing the old name is more important than which deserving Alexandrian is chosen as the new namesake.

It’s finally, at long last, time for the name T.C. Williams to be removed from its place of prominence in Alexandria.

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