By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
The Alexandria school board unanimously voted on July 10 to begin the process to rename T.C. Williams High School.
The decision was in response to a 100-signature petition the school board received on June 15 requesting that T.C. Williams be renamed. The school is named for Thomas Chambliss Williams, a former Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent who served from 1930s to 1963 and was a noted segregationist.
“T.C. Williams was in fact somebody who supported segregation and I think that really runs counter to our values that we have today,” Board member Michelle Rief said. “I think it’s long overdue that the school board considers renaming our one high school.”
While some people have been advocating for a name change for years, there was an outpouring of support for the change in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. Floyd’s death initiated a nationwide cry for racial equity, and as a result, symbols tied to racism and slavery are being removed across the country.
In Alexandria, the appropriateness of the Confederate statue Appomattox, and its placement in the middle of Washington Street, were debated for years before the statue was suddenly removed on June 2 by its owners, the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In the greater D.C. area, the Washington Redskins announced just this week that the team would retire the Redskins name and mascot because of its portrayal of Native Americans.
Changing the name of Alexandria’s only public high school may involve a longer process.
The school board’s resolution directs Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., to initiate the community engagement process to explore renaming the high school. Hutchings will report back to the school board with the scope and design of the community engagement process on Aug. 27, and the initiative will begin in the fall.
While the resolution sets in motion a process, it does not commit the board to rename the high school when Hutchings presents his recommendation to the school board by spring 2021.
All school board members expressed support for initiating the process.
“These are just not easy times,” Board member Meagan Alderton said. “Everybody on this board and on this panel – I think I can say everybody – understands and knows and does not want the name of a segregationist and a racist on a building and a public property.”
However, several board members acknowledged that they’ve received criticism for the project’s lengthy timeline.
Board member Ramee Gentry said the timeline was designed to allow for adequate community engagement.
“I understand the members of the community that sometimes get frustrated with the pace of change, just please know this is a reality,” Gentry said. “It’s a reality of democracy, it’s a reality of being an elected body that actually does value public engagement and transparency in our process, and that is part of what happens.”
Hutchings added that the coronavirus pandemic had an impact on the timeline.
“I’m trying to prevents us from making a commitment that, because of unforeseen circumstances, we’re not able to live up to that expectation,” Hutchings said. “We wanted to give ourselves some wiggle room because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the fall.”
Still, some members of the board expressed support for expediting the process, most vocally board member Jacinta Greene.
“I do think that this process can be done faster, if it’s truly what we want to do and what we believe in,” Greene said. “I’m all for getting our students back to school and making that happen with whatever plan we decided to take, but from that point, we should be focused on something as important as this, getting a segregationist’s name off our high school.”
Other board members echoed Hutchings’ sentiment that responding to the pandemic and preparing for the 2020-2021 school year should be ACPS’ priority. The resolution gives Hutchings until Aug. 27 to even begin the engagement process so that ACPS leadership can focus on planning for start of the school year.
“I think we need to provide the superintendent and the school division the head space to be laser-focused right now on how to open schools in the fall,” Vice Chair Veronica Nolan said. “Literally every moment this summer has got to be devoted to what are we going to do to academically remediate students who have been without instruction for six months.”
In order to add some flexibility to the timeline, the board elected to change the language requiring Hutchings to present findings “in” the spring of 2021 to “by” the spring of 2021, in case the process can be completed at a faster pace.
Once Hutchings presents his recommendation to the board, there will be a public hearing on the topic. From there, the school board will have another meeting in which it will be able to take action on a potential name change.
(Read more: Petitions advocate renaming T.C. Williams)