By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
A community conversation about whether to rename T.C. Williams High School gained traction last week, as several residents started petitions to present to the school board.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing underneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, people across the country have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism in the United States. Floyd’s killing also served as the spark to light a fire under communities like Alexandria that are reckoning with their own complex, problematic histories with race.
T.C. Williams High School is named after Thomas Chambliss Williams, who served as superintendent of schools from the 1930s to 1963 and was a noted segregationist.
Even after the 1954 Supreme court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that ruled segregation in schools unconstitutional, Williams vocally supported segregated education. He argued that white and black students learned differently and thus needed to have separate schools, citing test score data and ignoring the discrepancy in funding between schools for white and black students.
When the parents of black students applied to transfer their children from black schools to white schools, Williams was notorious for rejecting their applications. In 1958, the families of 14 students sued Williams in federal court to overturn his decisions. Williams fired Blois O. Hundley, a Lyles-Crouch Elementary School cook, because of her participation in the suit.
The conversation around renaming Alexandria’s only public high school has been ongoing since 2017, when the idea was raised at the same time protesters called for the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. T.C. Williams alumni and members of the community have reignited the conversation in light of the current cultural movement.
“I think at this point we’re tired – a lot of people are tired – and I think [the killing of Floyd] kind of paints a picture that we need to have change,” Christopher Harris, president of the Alexandria chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a T.C. alumnus who is involved in the petition process, said.
Marc Solomon, a resident and former school board candidate, initiated the official renaming process, alongside Harris and other members of the black community, by gathering signatures for a petition.
The decision of whether to rename a school is ultimately at the discretion of the school board. A request to rename a school must be submitted alongside a petition that has been physically signed by 100 Alexandria residents.
“Even with the coronavirus, we have double the amount of physical signatures that we need,” Solomon said. “People have been dropping petitions off at my house for the past week, so we have about 190 physical signature petitions from all over the city.”
Among those who signed the petition were councilors John Chapman, Canek Aguirre and Mo Seifeldein and state delegates Mark Levine and Charniele Herring, Solomon said.
The petition has been submitted to the school board. School Board Chair Cindy Anderson said the issue likely won’t go before the school board until the fall, since the remaining few school board meetings will be dedicated to Alexandria City Public Schools’ reopening plans.
Another petition started by T.C. alumnus Jack Houston has been making the rounds through the community as well. Although it is not a part of the official renaming process, the online petition has demonstrated there is wide-spread support for renaming the high school.
“If we change the name to someone who is worthy of that, we, for one, are going to give students that go there someone to actually look up to,” Houston said. “But we are also going to take that away from T.C. Williams the person and give it someone who deserves it and embodies what the school and the school system are trying to embody.”
Houston started his Change.org petition on June 11 and had received 2,224 signatures as of Wednesday.
The school board has to approve of renaming the high school before the process of selecting a new name can begin, but that hasn’t stopped Houston from suggesting a new name in his petition: Petey Jones High School.
Jones was a long-time T.C. Williams employee and member of the 1971 championship-winning Titans football team that was depicted in the film “Remember the Titans.”
“I think it would be a good thing for a lot of people if we named it after somebody who was just a football player and then went on to work at ACPS,” Houston said. “I think it’s important to honor those people in really, really high positions. I think it’s also good to honor people who aren’t.”
The petition that was sent to the school board includes a placeholder name – Tubman-Chavez – in anticipation of a robust community discussion around renaming the high school.
A school can be renamed for “individuals who have made an exceptional and extraordinary contribution to a particular school, school program, or the school division as a whole,” according to ACPS policy. However, the person in question cannot currently be an employee of ACPS. Schools can also be named after a historically significant place or event related to the specific school.
If a request for renaming is rejected by the school board, another proposal to change the name of the school cannot be submitted for another year.
Some T.C. Williams students have expressed support for getting Williams’ name off the building.
“If the students at T.C. knew what the name of their school really meant, then I guarantee you there would be a lot of support for a change in the name,” T.C. senior Sarah Devendorf said.
Devendorf and Houston both said that at no point during their time at T.C. Williams did they learn about who the school’s namesake was or what he did.
“I went to Lyles-Crouch [Traditional Academy] in the school system and we learned about [their] history … And then, of course, I went to G.W. [Middle School], and it’s George Washington,” Devendorf said.“But then it was just kind of radio silence for who T.C. Williams was. No one ever mentioned why we had that name, and I didn’t know who he was, or that he was a past superintendent, until the conversation came up a couple weeks ago.”
Some supporters of the current name, primarily alumni, distinguish between the legacy of T.C. Williams the man and the legacy of T.C. Williams the school.
“[The school has] got the strong support of the citizenry and the rest of the community. I just think if we change the name at this stage, we’ll lose a lot of those positive gains and that support in the future, particularly for the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria,” Former Mayor Bill Euille, who graduated T.C. in 1968, said.
There is already a portion of the high school’s alumni base who did not attend school in the new building, which opened in 2007, and feel disconnected from the school community. A name change could further sever those former students’ connections, and level of support to the Scholarship Fund, Euille said.
“These are folks that you would normally count on to be supporters of the Scholarship Fund or any other activity, and they’ve pulled back over the years, which is most unfortunate,” Euille said. “If there was a name change and you didn’t have something you could relate to, show your grandchildren … it will have an impact.”
Harris said that there are ways to remove the name and maintain the school’s legacy – he supported keeping the Titans name and mascot.
Harris warned residents about picking battles when it comes to reassessing the city’s historical symbols. Earlier this month, the Appomattox, a Confederate statue that has sat at the intersection of Washington and Prince streets since 1889, was removed.
“We can’t pick and choose because it puts us in a dangerous space when we say that we need these statues down because they reflect a segregationist and racism but it’s OK to keep this school [name] because we went there,” Harris said.
Petition organizers said they are hopeful about their chances of renaming T.C. Williams, based on what they have heard from ACPS Superintendent Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. and school board members. Supporters acknowledged that renaming the school is a symbolic gesture that could mean more meaningful change down the road for a school that still has academic segregation, Devendorf said.
“Everything in regard to the statue and the school name, that’s symbolism,” Harris said. “That doesn’t change the life of the individuals in this city that have been separated and disregarded to a certain degree. It has to start with policy – and real policy.”