Wednesday, July 24, 2024

What’s in a name? Community torn over Magruder Elementary School’s namesake

Magruder Elementary School was built in the 1960s and is a part of the York County School Division. (WYDaily/Courtesy of York County School Division)

As institutions around the country take time to reflect on practices and orientations, many are looking into the possibility of changing names.

Just last week, board members of Thomas Nelson Community College voted to recommend a name change.

RELATED STORY: TNCC board recommends name change after unanimous vote

Now, Magruder Elementary School, part of the York County School Division, is under community scrutiny. Discussion amongst the community has begged the question of whether or not the school is in need of a name change.

But here’s the issue: There is disagreement over whom or what the name pays tribute to.

“Magruder” comes from the name of a Civil War Confederate general, John Bankhead Magruder. His connection to York County history? He defended the area against the Union Army’s Peninsula Campaign.

Magruder became such a revered legend in the county a community was named after him. The community of Magruder, an informal hamlet of nearly 200 families, was settled mostly by African Americans after the Civil War.

It was a place where families could live a little freer in a time of Jim Crow Laws, according to past coverage by WYDaily.

Unfortunately, the town of Magruder no longer exists. In 1942, families were forced out to make room for Camp Peary.

RELATED STORY: Tidewater’s lost towns: Camp Peary’s legacy in Williamsburg

Sam Eure, a member of the York-Williamsburg-James City County NAACP’s committee of education, thinks the school division should change the name.

“The history of the name is tied to the Confederacy,” the former York High School history teacher said in a phone interview on Feb. 19. “It’s very simple. The name represents a time of oppression, a time we should no longer be living in.”

Eure recollected his experience attending John R. Lewis High School, the formerly-named Robert E Lee High School, in Springfield, VA.

While he didn’t know too much about the significance of the school name, he said he felt the sentiment it created in his classmates and teachers, a majority of whom were white. He added the name of a school has a huge impact on students, shaping pride, beliefs, and how they feel represented.

“It’s somewhat an uncomfortable situation,” he said. “Keep in mind the history of all Americans is not represented. What kind of message does that send to a young, impressionable student?”

Eure also conducted a local survey last October that got a total of 234 responses.

The results? 74.36% said they were aware the school was named after the area, which was named after Gen. Magruder, and 60.95% said a Confederate-named public institution was not an issue.

But 54.51% of responses said the school name should be changed.

Magruder Elementary School was not the only school of its kind. Next door to York County, the Newport News School Division renamed its Magruder Elementary School to the Discovery STEM Academy in 2016.

So what the does school division think?

Katherine Goff, spokesperson for YCSD said in a phone interview on Feb. 22 that it was against division policy to name school buildings after people.

“York County School Division has always named schools after a part in the region or the location in which they’re in,” she said.

For example, Waller Mill Elementary School is just around the corner from Waller Mill Park. Route 64 is the only divide between Queens Lake Middle School and the eponymous lake.

And Magruder Elementary School is a whopping 3.6-mile drive from Camp Peary’s Visitor Center.

Aaron Butler, YCSD’s director of school administration, researched the history of the Magruder community and spoke to local historians about it.

“The name ‘Magruder’ pays tribute to the lost community of Magruder, not the man,” he said.

Brent Higginbotham, school board chair and District 2 representative said in an email on Feb. 19, “the school’s name is a tribute to the fortitude of the Magruder community and we do not want to further displace it.”

“As we understand it, descendants of that community want to ensure their history is not lost,” he wrote in the email. “We believe that maintaining the Magruder Elementary name and educating our students and families about that local history, honors that need.”

Goff also said the school had added curriculum material to teach local history to elementary school students, and each elementary school focuses on the area of the county they’re in.

“When schools reach a certain milestone, they’ll have activities that explore and focus on local history. In Magruder’s case, it’s focused on community history,” Goff said.

But the NAACP doesn’t share that opinion.

Eure said the local chapter sent a letter to the school division on July 30, 2020, demanding a name change. Eure forwarded a copy of this letter to WYDaily.

“Society, particularly York County, needs to stand on the side of what is right and moral,” the letter said. “The bottom line is that to keep the name is to tacitly endorse racist beliefs and philosophies. Every school student feels comfortable and not marginalized by the school’s name. The learning environment should be positive for all students.”

Goff said the letter was received by the school division, and James Richardson, District 4 representative on the school board responded to the letter, echoing the same sentiments as his colleagues that the name pays tribute to the displaced community of Magruder.

Eure said he still disagrees with this statement.

“Getting people to say it’s ok to name a school after a Confederate general because it was also the name of community created by former slaves is some sort of twisted irony because the name wasn’t provided by them. It was provided by the people in power,” he said.


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