By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
The Alexandria City Public Schools community voiced near unanimous support for renaming T.C. Williams High School during the Oct. 29 school board meeting.
Amid a growing national conversation about systemic racism, the idea of renaming the high school has become a focal point for those who wish to see the city more directly acknowledge its own historic injustices.
The renaming process began this summer when the School Board voted to initiate the community engagement process to explore renaming the high school. The School Board is set to vote on whether or not to rename T.C. Williams and Matthew Maury Elementary School on Nov. 23. The Oct. 29 public hearing was the last community engagement session before the School Board’s vote.
The high school is named after former ACPS Superintendent Thomas Chambliss Williams. A staunch segregationist, Williams refused to integrate the city’s schools even after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which deemed segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
Williams’ racist philosophies informed how and where students of color learned in the city. Williams used test score data to argue that Black and white students learned differently and, as a result, needed separate schools, ignoring that Black and white schools had inequitable access to resources.
The conversation around renaming T.C. Williams High School has been ongoing for years but was most recently reignited in 2017, around the same time protesters called for the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The idea has gained traction this year in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and the ensuing heightened focus on the nation’s racial injustices. Several residents started petitions over the summer, calling on the School Board to rename the school.
Williams’ legacy still looms large over T.C. students, especially students of color.
“Our student demographic is majority people of color and that is a demographic that T.C. Williams fought to keep out of our schools,” Lily Fanning, community outreach and social media director for the Students for Renaming T.C. Williams, wrote in a letter to the School Board. “By allowing his name to represent us, we are ignoring the fact that, because of his actions and beliefs, students and families in the community were oppressed.”
Some members of the ACPS community said that by leaving Williams’ name on the high school, the school division is sending a message to its students.
Tricia Maher-Miller, a 28-year-old resident, acknowledged that she did not ask or wonder who Williams was until she became aware of his infamous place in history after working as a tutor in ACPS.
“Allowing his name to remain in a place of honor sends a clear message to our Black students and citizens,” Maher-Miller said. “They have been permitted to attend T.C. Williams High School not because we in Alexandria value them as vital members of our community and recognize their equal rights but because the man after whom their school is named lost the battle to keep them out.”
Many community members criticized ACPS for what they saw as a lack of urgency with the issue, claiming that renaming the high school has been a long time coming.
Greg Hittelman, whose three children all attend ACPS, said the school division had been “shamefully dragging its heels” and treating “students’ calls of change as annoyances or threats.”
Glenn Hopkins, president of Hopkins House, said that he had called on the School Board to rename T.C. Williams in 1991 but had seen no progress since then. In his remarks, Hopkins quoted the late Congressman John Lewis, who said, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”
“We see the name of our public high school,” Hopkins said. “We say to you that it’s wrong to be there because it’s a hateful symbol that hurts and divides us. And we ask you now to do something by removing this evil name.”
The majority of those who spoke during the meeting were in favor of a name change, but there were a few who voiced their opposition. Mark Munson, the father of an upperclassman at T.C., said he believes that students and teachers have redefined the T.C. Williams name.
“The one thing that this comes down to, for me, is that the high school was named after a man, but it has been redefined by our whole community as a symbol of unity and diversity,” Munson said.
Munson expressed some logistical concerns related to renaming the high school, including how changing the name could impact college admissions officers and athletic recruiters who are familiar with the T.C. name.
More generally, Munson said he still has faith in the good will that the T.C. Williams name has across the country.
“I know that we don’t live in a Disney movie, but the truth of the matter is there is not a single high school in the United States that has more good will associated with its name, and that is because it stands for the exact proposition that we can overcome segregation, we can overcome racism by working together,” Munson said.
Some community members proposed specific names to replace T.C. Williams. Some expressed support for Nolan B. Dawkins High School, in honor of the first Black circuit court judge in the city. Others proposed the high school be named after Herman Boone and Bill Yoast, the two coaches who led a newly integrated T.C. Williams football team to championship victory in 1971.
Sharon Henderson, Boone’s daughter, advocated for the name Boone-Yoast High School and her comments were echoed by Wayne Sanders, a resident who witnessed the impact of the coaching duo’s work.
“From their efforts, it brought on a community that worked together,” Sanders said. “It brought quiet and safety to the city. It established what the city of Alexandria is to this day.”
“The city does not lose any identity [by renaming the high school] because you’ve got two of the greatest Titans that the school is named after,” Sanders added.
While most community members commented on the potential renaming of T.C., resident Pamela Vetrini spoke in support of renaming Matthew Maury.
Maury, a member of the Confederate States Navy, was a proslavery internationalist who represented the Confederate cause in Europe. Maury attempted to negotiate slave trading between the U.S. and Brazil and even tried to create a new Virginia settlement in Mexico where slavery could continue after the Civil War ended.
Vetrini, a history buff as well as an ACPS parent, said that through her research she learned that, like many Confederates, Maury’s name and likeness were repurposed by the Jim Crow-era South.
“The name Maury was chosen specifically to emphasize the South’s intention to remain segregated and to honor the ‘lost cause,’” Vetrini said. “It sent a message about our school, our neighborhood, our city and about Virginia. It is past time to reject that message.”
Parents, students and residents will have to wait until Nov. 23 to see whether ACPS is willing to officially rename the schools.
“Generations of brave voices of all races and hues have called for this change,” Hittelman said, “coming together in this year of pain and chaos with a message to the future that we can work together and piece by piece, step by step, make our community, our nation and our world a better place for all.”