- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

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.

In Gadsden, Ala., however, officials have resisted efforts to rename a middle school named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early backer of the Ku Klux Klan. A school board in Kentucky adopted a new dress code that eliminates bans on provocative symbols including the Confederate battle flag.

The naming of schools after Confederate figures is particularly rich with symbolism because of the South’s slow move to integrate. Many schools were named after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, but before white flight left many inner-city schools majority black.

“Now whites are complaining that they are changing the name of Stonewall Jackson High School,” says Fitzhugh Brundage, a University of North Carolina history professor who is writing a book on “black and white memory from the Civil War.”

While far from always the case, the naming of some public schools after Confederate generals was a parting shot to blacks emerging from segregated schools.

“It was an attempt to blend the past with the present but holding on to a romanticized past,” Jennings Wagoner, a University of Virginia scholar on the history of education, said of the practice of naming schools after Lee, Jackson and others. “It was also a time of extreme racism.”

Erenestine Harrison, who began the petition drive to rename Jefferson Davis Middle School, attended Hampton’s segregated public schools. She moved north in 1967 and was struck by the school names upon her return seven years ago to Hampton, a city at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Educated as a psychologist, she has worked in the city schools as a substitute teacher.

“If I were a kid, especially a teenager, I would be ashamed to tell a friend that I went to Jefferson Davis,” said Miss Harrison, 55. “Basically, those guys fought for slavery.”

Miss Harrison said plenty of battlefields and statues sustain Confederate heritage without the schools celebrating the segregated past.

“Of course we can argue over the whole history [of the Civil War], but the end result would be black people would have continued to be in slavery,” she said.

Henry Kidd, former Virginia commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, sees efforts by Miss Harrison and others as a “chipping away, piece by piece, at our history.” Like many defenders of the Confederacy, he views the Civil War as a fight over states’ rights and economics.

“The causes of the war had nothing to do with slavery,” Mr. Kidd said. “The founders of our country — Thomas Jefferson and George Washington — were slave owners. We know today they were wrong, but at that time that was the belief.”

Time is taking care of some of the naming debates as schools built in the mid-1950s and 1960s are replaced by newer buildings.

“Many new schools are being named for African-American or civil rights leaders,” said William G. Thomas, a Southern historian and director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia. “Across the South, the energy has gone into naming new schools.”

Even Miss Harrison dropped an effort to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary in Hampton after learning that Lee was reluctant to battle the North and did not own slaves.

Back at Davis Middle School, the parent of the eighth-grader finds “poetic justice” in her bright young daughter excelling at a school named after a slave owner and where two out of every three students are black.

“He must be rolling in his grave to see so many smart young African-American students,” she said of Davis.

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