Steven Brown spoke to a crowd of about 100 in the parking lot of Jefferson Davis Middle School Sunday, where he was once a student decades ago. Back then, he remembered, the marching band wore replica Confederate soldier uniforms, and the yearbook was once called the Rebel and bore the Confederate flag.
Brown, a member of the NAACP and chairman of the city’s housing and redevelopment board, said he didn’t realize the significance then, but celebrating that imagery has an effect on students, an idea repeated at a rally that called for changing the name of the middle school and the Campus at Lee.
The rally was organized by the Hampton chapter of the NAACP and several local progressive groups. Gaylene Kanoyton, NAACP chapter president, said the rally was focused on a Hampton School Division policy that says schools should be named for people “who have rendered outstanding service to mankind, their community, state and/or country.”
Kanoyton drew laughter and expressions of disbelief when she read the policy to the crowd. She said Confederate general Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis do not fit that description, so their names should not be on schools.
She said that kids come to the school and learn about history, but they do not need the names of Lee and Davis over their heads. Nearby, Tiffany West held up a sign that said, “No minority should have to attend a school named after someone who fought to keep them enslaved.” West said the name is not fair to those students and must be addressed.
Beyond discussion of the schools, speakers related the local issue to the national political climate, with a focus on last week's white nationalist rally in Charlottesville and the violence that ensued.
Hampton City Councilman Will Moffett said Confederate symbols and monuments should be retired to museums, saying they sowed division in communities and have become rallying points for white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
He called for togetherness and encouraged the group gathered to advocate for other issues, such as criminal justice, poverty and violence. He also pointed out that the issue of renaming the middle school failed to get approval from the School Board last year, when more people advocated against a name change than for it at board meetings.
Several speakers at the rally implored the crowd not to let that happen again. Brown told the group they had the means to make a difference and that the people fighting to keep the name don’t understand the significance because they did not deal with it. The crowd groaned as Brown recalled the Confederate imagery that surrounded him at the school.
At the rally, Misty Collins stood slightly off of the main group, behind the area where people were speaking, and held a sign that said, “Changing the name doesn’t change history.” During the rally, Collins stood to the side and listened, and some people came to talk with her.
After the rally, Collins said she didn’t see the necessity of changing the name, saying it would cost money to change it and wouldn’t affect the actual history. She also called renaming a slippery slope. “Where does it end? What’s next?” she asked.
State Sen. Mamie Locke was the only speaker to refer to Collins specifically at the rally. She agreed that history could not be changed and said the people who want to pay homage could do so in private museums they pay for themselves, not in places supported by taxpayer money.
The rally in Hampton is one of multiple efforts on the Peninsula to either remove Confederate symbols or change them to add context.
Over the weekend, Andrew Shannon of the Peninsula chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called on Newport News to either remove the monument on Old Courthouse Road in Denbigh or erect statues of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Virginia Civil Rights activist Curtis Harris and local activist Marcellus Harris Jr. The Isle of Wight NAACP has asked its Board of Supervisors to take down a statue in Monument Circle, and other efforts are underway in Williamsburg and the Middle Peninsula.
Kanoyton said the NAACP planned to attend the next School Board meeting on Sept. 6 to talk about renaming the schools.
Reyes can be reached by phone at 757-247-4692. Follow him on Twitter @jdauzreyes.