Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Name change for Rawls Byrd Elementary under discussion tonight

Last month, Edith “Cookie” Heard didn’t think the Williamsburg-James City County School Board would take up her request to change the name of Rawls Byrd Elementary School.

But with the school board scheduled to discuss procedures for possibly changing the name at its meeting tonight, Heard is optimistic the campaign will succeed.

“I think they’re going to change the name of (the school) and they’re going to come up with a policy for changing school names, which we don’t have,” Heard said.

In recent weeks, former WJCC School Division students and community members have testified about Byrd’s segregationist views, which they say he expressed while he was the division’s superintendent from 1928 to 1964.

Some argue he’s a criminal for keeping WJCC schools segregated 10 years after the 1954 “Brown v. Board of Education” U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared segregation in public schools based on race is unconstitutional.

Edith "Cookie" Heard asks WJCC School Board members to discuss changing the name of Rawls Byrd Elementary School May 10, 2016. (Photo by Kirsten Petersen)
Edith “Cookie” Heard asks WJCC School Board members to consider changing the name of Rawls Byrd Elementary School during the board’s May 10 meeting. (Staff photo by Kirsten Petersen)

WJCC schools were not integrated until 1964, the year Byrd retired.

The WJCC School Division has no policy for naming or renaming schools, but some neighboring school divisions do. The York County School Division, for example, has decided that none of its schools will be named for a person, living or deceased.

Tonight Superintendent Steven Constantino will present two options for how the WJCC School Board could proceed in regard to Heard’s request — either consider changing the Rawls Byrd name without a specific policy in place or establish a policy before considering the name change request, according to an agenda document.

If the board chooses to consider a name change immediately, a survey would be developed and distributed to people who live or teach in the Rawls Byrd community, parents of current and former students, and community members who do not live in the Rawls Byrd attendance area. If the results of such a survey “overwhelmingly” lean toward a name change, the board could appoint a committee to prepare options for a new name, according to the agenda document. A policy then would be devised for future school name changes.

If the school board opts to draft a name change policy first, it would go to the board’s policy subcommittee before it is presented to the full board for its consideration.

If approved by the school board, the policy then would be applied in the consideration of a name change for Rawls Byrd Elementary School.

Other school names might be changed

Such an action might trigger other school name changes. For example, if the board decides that no school should be named for a living person, one school — Lois S. Hornsby Middle School — would need a new name.

During a May 10 work session, Sandy Young (Berkeley) was the first school board member to advocate for the board deciding whether or not a policy regarding school name changes should be written.

In an interview with WYDaily, Young said she was particularly moved by the stories of former WJCC students who said they were discriminated against by Byrd.

“This instance (of Rawls Elementary) is one we’re really going to have to take a look at and maybe make that decision to change the name,” Young said.

If the school board decides to implement a policy, Young said consideration must be given to the risks involved in allowing for schools to be named after people.

“When you name any building after any person, living or dead, eventually flaws and faults are going to surface,” Young said. “I think we need to be mindful of that and decide if we are willing to live with those faults in the future.”

At tonight’s meeting, Constantino is expected to provide the board with an estimate of costs associated with changing the school’s name. While the cost of new building letters and renaming the school’s “Fitness Wall of Fame” have not been determined, other expenses, including a new sign and the gym floor logo, total more than $8,500.

More than 300 people have signed name change petitions

Several petitions are circulating in the community in support of the name change.

Heard said a petition created by fellow Bruton Heights School alumnus Lafayette Jones has garnered more than 200 signatures. She expects more to come in from the College of William & Mary and the York-James City-Williamsburg chapter of the NAACP.

The petition reads as follows:

“Greetings from Lafayette Jones and the Bruton Heights Alumni,

“The Alumni and Mr. Jones are requesting the support of the community in getting that name of Rawls Byrd Elementary School changed.

“On May 24, 2016, the WJCC School Board will have their annual meeting at the Stryker Building in Williamsburg at 6:30 p.m. This action is being taken because Rawls Byrd was a staunch racist, with an antagonistic attitude toward non-whites. He had a complete disregard and was not compliant with Federal Law for more than 12 years. He REFUSED to integrate the schools in accordance to the 1954 United States Supreme Court ruling to integrate ALL schools.

“Please show your support but signing this petition and attending the May 24th meeting being held at the Stryker building at 6:00 p.m.”

The petition will be presented to the school board tonight, Heard said.

“We just want to have something to give them to show the community interest,” Heard said, adding that there’s no specific goal for how many signatures the petitioners hope to gather.

Jen Tierney, whose children attended Rawls Byrd Elementary School, created a petition supporting the name change on Change.org. It has garnered nearly 150 signatures so far, including one from Kathy Hornsby, wife of noted musician and Williamsburg native Bruce Hornsby.

“I think the biggest thing that impacts people is that the name of that school is still causing hurt in our community today, and people feel like we can eliminate that,” Tierney said.

The school board meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. at the Stryker Center, at 412 N. Boundary St. in Williamsburg.

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