HAMPTON, Va. — In the parking lot of Jefferson Davis Middle School, a civil war of words is being waged over a petition drive to erase the name of the slave-owning Confederate president from the school.
Opinion is mixed, and it’s not necessarily along racial lines.
“What are they going to name it, Allen Iverson Middle School?” asks a black eighth-grader who says she doesn’t pay much attention to the petition effort, which she and her mother call ridiculous.
Mr. Iverson, an NBA player with a knack for attracting trouble, attended Jeff Davis.
Cam Hanson, waiting for his two children in the family van, says erasing the Davis name would not bother him, provided the new name doesn’t offend.
“Like naming it after Allen Iverson. That’s offensive to me,” says Mr. Hanson, who is white.
It is difficult to say how many public schools in the 11 former Confederate states are named for Civil War leaders from the South. Among the more notable names, the National Center for Education Services lists 19 Robert E. Lees, nine Stonewall Jacksons and five Davises. There are many more — J.E.B. Stuart, Turner Ashby, George Edward Pickett — with at least one school bearing their name.
For some, these men who defended a system that allowed slavery should not be memorialized on public schools where thousands of black children are educated.
“If it had been up to Robert E. Lee, these kids wouldn’t be going to school as they are today,” said civil rights leader Julian Bond, now a history professor at the University of Virginia. “They can’t help but wonder about honoring a man who wanted to keep them in servitude.”
That argument isn’t accepted universally among Southern black educators, including the school superintendent in Petersburg, where about 80 percent of the 36,000 residents are black. Three schools carry the names of Confederates.
“It’s not the name on the outside of the building that negatively affects the attitudes of the students inside,” Superintendent Lloyd Hamlin said. “If the attitudes outside of the building are acceptable, then the name is immaterial.”
The symbols and the names of the Confederacy remain powerful reminders of the South’s history of slavery and the war to end it. States, communities and institutions continue to debate what is a proper display of that heritage and what amounts to iconography.
Students in South Carolina have been punished for wearing Confederate flag T-shirts to school; Clarksdale, Miss., permanently lowered the state flag, which has a Confederate emblem in one corner, to recognize “the pain and suffering it has symbolized for many years”; and the Richmond-area Boy Scouts dropped Lee’s name from its council this year.
In the most sweeping change, the Orleans Parish School Board in Louisiana gave new names to schools once named for historical figures who owned slaves. George Washington Elementary School was renamed for Dr. Charles Richard Drew, a black surgeon who organized blood banks during World War II.