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For Edith “Cookie” Heard, the name “Rawls Byrd” for a WJCC elementary school is just as bad as Nat Turner, who was the leader of a violent slave rebellion in 1831 that resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.
Byrd, the former superintendent of Williamsburg-James City County schools, is a criminal in the minds of former students like Heard and Lafayette Jones because he allowed schools to remain segregated 10 years after “Brown v. Board of Education,” they said.
Now, Heard and Jones are leading a campaign to change the name of the 1960s-era school.
“Normally, you name the schools for those who have done something constructive in the community,” Jones said. “This man was constructive for the whites and destructive for the blacks.”
WJCC School Board Expresses Interest in Discussing Rawls Byrd ‘Situation’
Rawls Byrd Elementary School, located at 112 Laurel Lane, opened in 1965. Byrd was superintendent from 1928 to 1964 and led the merger of the Williamsburg and James City County school divisions, but Heard and Jones do not recall him for his service.
Rather, they remember two distinct events: the day Jones tried to enroll at James Blair High School and the day they both graduated from the Bruton Heights School in 1961.
Jones said he lived across the street from James Blair; yet, because the schools were segregated, he attended Bruton Heights, located 3 miles away from home.
In 1960, he decided to go to James Blair for class, but his plan was quickly thwarted by the principal, who placed Jones in a room by himself while he waited for Byrd to meet with him.
Jones said he was afraid to be in alone and recalled thinking about the Klu Klux Klan and Emmett Till, a black teenager who was lynched in Mississippi only a few years before.
“You’re thinking, ‘What are they going to do to me?’” Jones said.
When Byrd arrived, Jones said he asked him who “put him up to it” and if it was a teacher at Bruton Heights who encouraged him to walk into James Blair that day.
He recalled Byrd saying if Jones would not change his mind about going to James Blair, neither he nor his friends would graduate high school. He said Byrd declared he would “shut down the school before [he] saw a Negro attend a white school in Williamsburg-James City County.”
“Our parents taught us to be aware of white people because they could hurt you,” Heard said, so she was relieved when Jones “came back laughing” from his encounter with Byrd.
After friends discouraged him from trying to attend James Blair again, Jones decided to stay at Bruton Heights. He was among a small cohort of students who told their principal, D.J. Montague, they were concerned about Byrd attending their graduation ceremony and giving a speech.
Heard said Byrd attended the 1961 commencement but did not speak. He also did not shake hands with any of the graduates, Heard said.
In 1964 — the same year Byrd retired — Stanley Taylor became the first black student to attend James Blair High School. Taylor would go on to become the associate vice president for the Arlington campus of George Mason University and the chairman of the White House Commission for Presidential Scholars.
“They could have duplicated what this guy did” if the schools were integrated, Jones said.
Jones said the idea to change the name has been “floating around for years,” but no one had taken action. He and Heard decided now was the time for something to be done.
“I’m not getting any younger,” Jones said. “… They should have done this already,” Jones said. “They shouldn’t wait for us to complain.”
Ann Ward Little attended James Blair and graduated in 1959. She left Williamsburg to attend college, but when she returned to retire in 1998 she heard stories about Byrd from former students.
Little said she was “appalled” to learn that a school had been named after him. She compared the name to “rubbing salt into a wound.”
“I don’t think the white community had any idea what he was doing in regard to the black community, at least the people I know,” Little said. “I don’t think it’s a name that schoolchildren are going to be particular proud of, especially black children.”
Heard and Jones have started a petition and garnered support from members of the James City County Historical Commission. Still, Heard said she is not optimistic the school division will change the name and may offer the school’s history with the name as an excuse.
“I don’t know if the School Board realizes there are those of us who lived through that,” Heard said. “What are we telling the youth when we put someone in this position? And could he care less about the education of black students?”
Oscar Blayton, the sire archon of the Williamsburg Boulé of the African American Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, urged School Board members April 12 to give the oral testimony of former students the credit they’re due.
“The black community in WJCC really did suffer under this man and he really was a bigot and a bully,” Blayton said. “People are going to tell you these things and you should listen with an open mind … just because it’s not written does mean it’s not there.”