WJCC School Board Expresses Interest in Discussing Rawls Byrd ‘Situation’

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Lafayette Jones, a graduate of the Bruton Heights School, recalls his encounter with Rawls Byrd when he tried to attend the all-white James Blair High School in 1960 during the WJCC School Board meeting April 19, 2016 (Kirsten Petersen/WYDaily)
Lafayette Jones, a graduate of the Bruton Heights School, recalls his encounter with Rawls Byrd when he tried to attend the all-white James Blair High School in 1960 during the WJCC School Board meeting April 19, 2016 (Kirsten Petersen/WYDaily)

Several Williamsburg-James City County School Board members said they would be interested in discussing how they can to respond to community members who requested a name change for Rawls Byrd Elementary School during last night’s board meeting.

Eight residents testified to their personal interactions with Byrd, who was the superintendent of WJCC Schools from 1928 to 1964, or endorsed the efforts of advocates.

In addition to the eight, more than a dozen individuals came out to show their support for the campaign, which has been organized by Bruton Heights School graduates Edith “Cookie” Heard and Lafayette Jones.

‘They Should Have Done This Already’: Community Members Call for Rawls Byrd ES Name Change

Fellow Bruton Heights graduate Vivian Bland said she remembers well “the effects of [Byrd’s] discriminatory educational policies” on herself and other students. She recalled asking Byrd, while a student at Bruton Heights, why the school did not offer foreign language classes.

His response: “When we learn to speak English, we would get foreign languages,” she said.

Bland said she needed to be tutored in college to learn a foreign language and knows Bruton Heights students who spent “an extraordinary amount of time studying to make up for their deficits.”

“I appeal to you, the Williamsburg-James City County School Board, to change the name of the Rawls Byrd Elementary School to one that is appropriate for its stated mission, which is to create lifelong learners, independent thinkers and responsible citizens,” Bland said.

Ethell Hill, first vice president of the York-James City-Williamsburg branch of the NAACP, addresses the WJCC School Board April 19, 2016. She is supported by more than a dozen people who stood in solidarity during her comments on changing the name of Rawls Byrd Elementary School. (Kirsten Petersen/WYDaily)
Ethell Hill, first vice president of the York-James City-Williamsburg branch of the NAACP, addresses the WJCC School Board April 19, 2016. She is supported by more than a dozen people who stood in solidarity during her comments on changing the name of Rawls Byrd Elementary School. (Kirsten Petersen/WYDaily)

Ethell Hill, first vice president of the York-James City-Williamsburg branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, illustrated two impressions of Byrd: “one, as a leader who really shaped the schools that we have, and another, known today as an avowed segregationist who could visualize whites teaching blacks but not blacks teaching whites.”

While naming a school after a former superintendent may have been appropriate in the 1960s, Hill said, “perpetuating the legacy of racism and social injustice is no longer acceptable.”

Black speakers were supported by non-black speakers. Jessica O’Brien, president of the nonprofit All Together, urged the School Board to change the name so it “doesn’t valorize someone who ardently supported segregation” and used his position to “demean students, teachers and parents.”

John Whitley, a member of the York-James City-Williamsburg NAACP, called on the School Board to “capture this moment of cleansing and implement policies and procedures to make certain WJCC is anti-racist and multicultural.”

Five of the seven School Board members expressed interest in addressing the speakers’ concern about the name after member Mary Minor (Powhatan) brought up the issue. None, however, made a request of the school division administration to investigate the matter or provide information on what changing the name would entail.

Members Jim Beers (Roberts) and Julie Hummel (City of Williamsburg) spoke to their efforts to represent residents of all races, but Hummel was the only member to endorse the speakers’ comments.

“I support what I’ve heard tonight from the African Americans in our community and I would like to see us move forward, hearing all other viewpoints, of course,” Hummel said. “I would like to see how we can move forward and address the situation.”

Both Vice Chairwoman Kyra Cook (City of Williamsburg) and member Sandy Young (Berkeley) suggested talking about the name during a future School Board meeting. Neither Board Chairman Jim Kelly (Jamestown) nor member Holly Taylor (Stonehouse) spoke to the name change Tuesday night.

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