By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
The 888 seniors who received diplomas from T.C. Williams High School on Saturday made up the last and largest class in the school’s history.
Held in person at Chinquapin Park on a gray but rainless morning, the commencement kicked off with remarks by Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D., who said the class of 2021 left an “indelible mark” on future generations by spearheading the effort to change the school’s name to Alexandria City High School.
“We appreciate your inquisitive nature, your diversity of thought and your contributions to realizing racial equity and driving the change in our community is of the utmost importance,” Hutchings said. “You are the last class of graduates to have the name ‘T.C. Williams’ inscribed on your diploma, and yet you have played the most prominent role in changing the name.”
The school’s original namesake was Thomas Chambliss Williams, a 30-year former ACPS superintendent and avowed segregationist who fought openly to keep schools separate, arguing that Black and white students learned differently.
While conversations about renaming the city’s only high school had been simmering for years, the pressure boiled over last summer following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Led primarily by ACPS students, a movement took hold in the community and culminated in the School Board approving the name change of T.C. Williams and Matthew Maury Elementary School on April 8.
“You were the right Titans to make this happen. And as hard as this might be, you knew that change just couldn’t wait. When this movement took hold, I knew this was the class,” T.C. Williams High School Principal Peter Balas said during commencement. “Changing our school name from one that represents hatred, racism and bigotry to one that represents unity, diversity and inclusion is absolutely reflective of who you are as a class.”
Some alumni supported the general decision to rename the high school, but not the particular option that was chosen.
Stacey Reid graduated from T.C. Williams in 1991 and said that even back then there were conversations that the name was problematic. However, Reid also said he felt the “Alexandria City High School” title was “a cop-out.”
“It’s like the Washington Football Team,” Reid said, who was in attendance on Saturday for his son Stacey Reid Jr.’s graduation. “I’m glad they changed it; I think they should have picked a better name — something that means something.”
On April 8, the School Board changed Matthew Maury Elementary School, named after a Confederate naval officer who attempted to establish a Confederate colony in Mexico after the Civil War, to Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School, in honor of a respected Alexandria resident and educator. At the time, community and School Board members argued that a more general name for the high school made sense for the city’s only high school.
Other alums expressed frustration at the name change altogether.
Greg Paspatis, who graduated in 1978, said that T.C. Williams should not solely be blamed for segregation when it was normal for the state of Virginia at the time. Paspatis argued that the city should own its history, not remove it.
“I think [the name change] was a bad idea. It’s part of our history. I could point to any school name and say something bad about that historical [place],” Paspatis said.
Some former alumni have argued that renaming the school would weaken the connection that former graduates have with their alumni base.
“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, told the Times last year.
Ultimately, though, the name change has garnered collective support from community members.
Former T.C. Williams Principal John Porter expressed support for the new name, calling the change “long overdue.”
“[It’s] great to see the move to Alexandria City High School. … Titan Pride will continue to grow with the new name,” Porter said. “And as we proudly say, ‘Once a Titan, always a Titan.’”
The Class of 2021 Titans have a wide range of post secondary plans.
According to ACPS, 591 seniors have reported enrolling in 196 different colleges or universities, 22 have indicated a commitment to serve in the U.S. military and 30 have planned gap years through various organizations.
The Class of 2021’s racial demographic is 34.5% Hispanic, 29% Black, 29% white, 4% Asian, 3% multi and less than 1% American Indian/Alaska Native.
The socially distanced ceremony aligned with the Alexandria Health Department’s guidelines, which require three feet of space between every two folding chairs and up to two family members from each household. It featured a performance by graduate and singer-songwriter Mia Humphrey, who played an original song, “Summer 17,” she wrote during quarantine last summer.
The ceremony included a speech by Class of 2021 President Karam Burjas, who also led a presentation before the School Board on May 6 to address concerns surrounding COVID-19 and create plans for a safe in-person graduation ceremony.
“I am blown away by the sheer power that our class holds. It is because of the strength of our mind and spirit that we were all able to get through this time,” Burjas said. ” … We are resilient, we are intelligent and we are the future. ”
Commencement also consisted of poignant words from Class of 2021 Vice President Nyla Fox, Secretary Kiernan Almand and Treasurer Ella Kahl, as well as Black Student Union President Fina Osei-Owusu.
“To the graduates who sit before me, my hope is for each of you to pursue every dream you have to the fullest extent; to become great people who aspire to change the world; to walk in faith, love and truth; to be quick to listen and slow to speak; and to learn to serve every living being at heart,” Osei-Owusu said.
The school name change is slated to take effect on July 1.