A moral imperative to rename Rawls Byrd Elementary School

The Virginia Gazette

A chilling silence resonated through Tuesday's W-JCC School Board Meeting as three former W-JCC students – Lafayette Jones, Vivian Bland, and Edith Heard – all recounted interactions with Superintendent Rawls Byrd. While they differed in their respective contexts, all three stories shared a common thread – they each described Rawls Byrd as an arrogant racist, unflinchingly contemptuous of any Black student who dared question the status quo of segregation.

As the man who united the Williamsburg and James City County school districts over a half-century ago, Rawls Byrd had long been remembered as a quintessential public servant. His tenure as Superintendent spanned across five decades, from 1928-1964 – the opening of Rawls Byrd Elementary School in the beginning of the 1965-66 school year served as a formal way to commemorate his service to the school district.

The publication of the article entitled "Former students and teachers want Rawls Byrd Elementary renamed" in the March Virginia Gazettte represented one of the first public accounts of Byrd's discrimination, and laid out community members' plans for renaming Byrd's namesake. The piece helped mobilize residents across Williamsburg to attend Tuesday's School Board meeting, which ultimately culminated in a strong turnout of supporters in solidarity with Jones, Bland, and Heard.

Without hesitation, I urge the School Board to move in renaming Rawls Byrd Elementary School as swiftly as possible.

Byrd's disturbingly jarring sentiments have absolutely no place in our contemporary society, and to retain his namesake tacitly valorizes the character of a bigot. While the news of Byrd's racism certainly shocked many, Black residents of W-JCC have long known of his twisted dispositions – in fact, that it has taken over half a century to revisit his legacy is problematic in its own right. For those who have been informed of the harsh reality of the former Superintendent (either through experience, or from the aforementioned article), Rawls Byrd Elementary School is emblematic of institutional complacency in the face of injustice.

Apologists may be quick to categorize Byrd as a man of his time, and as a result, unfairly assessed against modern standards of social justice. While his attitude was undoubtedly characteristic of his era, this is no excuse to turn a blind eye and continue eulogizing a man who ardently defended inequality.

Renaming Rawls Byrd Elementary will not censor his contributions to W-JCC schools, nor will it magically erase historical records of his service. It will remain possible examine, and perhaps even value, aspects of Byrd's work while still critically reflecting on the appropriate ways to commemorate his life.

In light of these facts, it would be puzzling for Rawls Byrd Elementary to retain its name. The school's mission statement, which "value(s) partnership with family and community" and sets out to "create lifelong learners, independent thinkers, and responsible citizens" is entirely irreconcilable with a namesake evocative of virulent discrimination. Further, what sort of parents would proudly send their child to an institution whose namesake was an avowed segregationist, whose own pedagogy entailed grave violations of educational equality and justice?

Rawls Byrd was on the wrong side of history, and I can only hope we do not further glorify his name. The estimated $13,000 in renaming costs pales in comparison to the grave injustices perpetrated by the W-JCC school system during his tenure as Superintendent.

While we cannot expect this mere name change to even remotely compensate for what generations of black youth in Williamsburg had to endure, it is a necessary step in confronting an uncomfortable past.

Alaigh is a 2015 graduate of the College of William & Mary, and is currently a service-year Fellow at the William & Mary Office of Community Engagement. His views are in no way representative of the College of William & Mary, nor the Office of Community Engagement.

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