WJCC requests public input on new name for Rawls Byrd Elementary

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(WJCC Schools)
(Courtesy WJCC Schools)

When Lafayette Jones graduated from Bruton Heights School in 1961, he did not walk on stage next to any white students.

The school’s white superintendent handed him a diploma but did not shake his hand, or the hands of any other black students he graduated alongside.

The Superintendent was named Rawls Byrd, and under his leadership Williamsburg James City County Public Schools maintained racial segregation for 10 years after the Supreme Court struck it down in Brown v. Board of Education.

Today, Byrd’s name remains emblazoned on Rawls Byrd Elementary in Williamsburg. However, that will change by autumn 2017 after the WJCC School Board selects the school’s next name.

The WJCC School Board voted to change the school’s name in the spring, after a public hearing allowed citizens such as Jones a chance to voice their concerns.

“It didn’t take long for the school board to approve it, it took a long time for people to bring it up,” Jones said. “The school board responded very quickly.”

Byrd served as superintendent between 1928 and 1964. Rawls Byrd Elementary opened in 1965 and was named after Byrd in honor of his retirement.

On Monday, WJCC schools website posted a survey that lists eight potential names for consideration, all of which were developed by current Rawls Byrd students.

According to Director of PR & Engagement for WJCC Public Schools Betsy Overkamp-Smith, the school board created the Rawls Byrd Elementary School Renaming Committee, which will present three names to the board in January.

The Committee will take the survey results into account, but the board is not required to pick any of the names presented to them.

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)

“I think that there is enough info in the community for people to understand the school board’s decision,” Overkamp-Smith said.

“We’ve had the survey open for one day,” she added. “We’ve received over 300 responses and only three stated that they’d like the name to remain Rawls Byrd.”

Overkamp-Smith said that the school board will make a decision this winter so that materials and signage can incorporate the school’s new name in time for the beginning of the 2017-18 school year.

Civil rights activists such as Jones are pleased to see alternatives to the name of their former superintendent for the elementary school.

“It appears to be moving in a very suitable fashion,” said Jones. “It shows that the community is changing and showing rapid growth as it moves forward.”