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Williamsburg City Councilman Scott Foster said he first learned about former WJCC Schools Superintendent Rawls Byrd’s reported history of discrimination after a conversation with former Councilman Bobby Braxton.
Foster said Braxton, who attended WJCC Schools when they were still segregated, told him how “unsettling” it was to drop off his granddaughter at a school named for Byrd.
“I think we need a strong community process to determine a new name” for Rawls Byrd Elementary School, Foster said. “It’s a great chance to engage all of Williamsburg and find someone who is deserving of having a school named after them.”
The WJCC School Board took its first step to initiate that process Tuesday night when Board Chairman Jim Kelly (Jamestown) asked Superintendent Steven Constantino to prepare information on policies related to changing the name for the body’s May 24 meeting.
In recent weeks, former students of the segregated WJCC School Division have advocated for the name of the school to be changed, recalling segregationist views expressed by Byrd and threats he made during his time as superintendent.
The school division remained segregated 10 years after “Brown v. Board of Education” and were not integrated until after Byrd retired in 1964, making Byrd a criminal in the eyes of some former students.
Although it will ultimately be the School Board’s decision to keep or change the name of the 1960s-era school, elected officials from the Williamsburg City Council and the James City County Board of Supervisors – the funding partners that contribute the bulk of the school division’s annual budget – have offered a variety of opinions as to how they believe the School Board should proceed.
The majority of the City Council agreed the name should be changed, while opinions from the Board of Supervisors were mixed, ranging from ardent support of the campaign to an opposition to interfering with School Board issues that are unrelated to finances.
Neither the City Council nor the Board of Supervisors plan to pass a resolution at this time in support of a name change, instead citing the school board’s responsibility to consider the issue and make the final decision.
John McGlennon, vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors, represents the Roberts District, which is where the school is located. McGlennon said the School Board needs to take into account the concerns expressed by former students and it “ought to be looking at another possibility for a name.”
“It’s always a challenge when you’ve got generations of kids who’ve gone to a school with a particular name who associate with that [name], but as we become aware of the hurt that was caused to people in the community, it’s appropriate to revisit that question,” McGlennon said.
Supervisor Kevin Onizuk (Jamestown), who has been outspoken on fiscal issues related to WJCC schools, such as funding the fourth middle school and the Lafayette High School auxiliary gym, said he would defer to the School Board when it comes to addressing the name.
“The School Board doesn’t like when we get involved in their business and comment on things such as that. We do our best to respect them,” Onizuk said. “We trust in them to run a top-notch school system and make those decisions.”
Board Chairman Michael Hipple (Powhatan) said he does not want to “step on the feet” of the School Board by introducing a resolution for or against the name change.
“It’s not as much a Board of Supervisors issue as it is a School Board issue at this point. It’s almost like calling the School Board on a land use issue and ask, ‘What do you think the Board should do?’” Hipple said. “I want to see what they come out with and what their recommendations are.”
Supervisor Ruth Larson (Berkeley), who served on the School Board before her election to the Board of Supervisors last year, said she thinks the school division could form a committee to study the issue.
“I don’t think the way they perceived they were treated should be brushed off,” Larson said, referring to the former students. “I think the school division should do what they can to quickly look at the matter and come to a resolution. I think they owe it to the people who came forward.”
Supervisor Sue Sadler (Stonehouse) said she has concerns about the name based on comments she heard from the April 19 School Board meeting, but said she needs to do more research before she can offer her own opinion.
Outgoing Williamsburg Mayor Clyde Haulman said the name “probably should be changed,” but agreed with Hipple that it would be inappropriate to introduce a resolution indicating the City Council’s opinion on the matter
“I think times have changed since it was first named and I think this is a way the community can recognize the changes that have taken place,” Haulman said.
Outgoing Councilwoman Judy Knudson said she did not know who Rawls Byrd was when her child attended the school, but agreed the name needs to change.
“I think it sends a bad message to have that name,” Knudson said. “Apparently he did some good things in Williamsburg but he also held some views I don’t agree with.”
Vice Mayor Paul Freiling agreed that a “community conversation” needs to take place that also offers insight on the times through which Byrd and former WJCC students lived.
“If you just change the name without having a broader conversation about what was at play during that time and the forces that were interacting, I think we miss the opportunity to teach ourselves, as a community, about the past,” Freiling said.
Councilman Doug Pons said he does not have enough information to form an opinion, but said if the School Board opts to change the name, he would support the decision.
Going forward, Pons said he would be reluctant to name a building for a person.
“In this age of political correctness, I think we’re going to be challenged [when we] name buildings after people,” Pons said. “People are innately flawed and make mistakes and are a product of their environment and times in history.”