Residents propose four options for renaming Rawls Byrd ES

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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)

As the WJCC School Board considers a policy for naming schools, four options have been gathered by community members to replace the name of Rawls Byrd Elementary School.

The proposals—Chohany Elementary, Laurel Elementary, Bruton Heights Elementary and Powhatan Elementary—were the four most popular choices based on responses from a random selection of residents, said Lafayette Jones, who organized the campaign to change the name.

Jones and fellow alumni of the Bruton Heights School recall Rawls Byrd, the WJCC Schools superintendent from 1928 to 1964, as a vocal segregationist who kept the schools separated by race for 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional in the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education.

The first alternative on the list, Chohany Elementary, would celebrate Dr. George J. Chohany, a longtime Williamsburg-area physician who died in 2012.

The name change policy, if approved, would restrict the school board to naming schools for people only if an individual “has been deceased for at least ten years.”

Jones said he disagreed with the restriction, calling the choice of ten years “arbitrary and capricious.”

“Deleting that time period and making the determining factor be that the individual would be deceased, that would clarify things,” Jones said.

He argued that someone’s past transgressions can come to light at any time, whether they’ve been dead 10, 15 or 20 years.

Laurel Elementary would be named for the street the school is located on; Bruton Heights Elementary would commemorate the former Bruton Heights School in Williamsburg; and Powhatan Elementary would be named for a nearby school district.

Of the four names, Jones said he preferred Laurel Elementary because it is “not divisive in any way.”

Jones said he is open to hearing other suggestions from the community. If the school board approves the name change policy, which it reviewed for the first time Tuesday night, it will “reserve the right to make the final decision regarding the name of any school or school facility.”

The school board will have its second reading of the policy and could adopt it during its July 12 meeting.

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