Former students and teachers want Rawls Byrd Elementary renamed

Ryan McKinnon
Contact Reporterjmckinnon@vagazette.com

WILLIAMSBURG — When Lafayette Jones, a black high school junior, asked to attend the all-white James Blair High School in 1960, his father got a phone call.

It was Rawls Byrd, the superintendent of Williamsburg-James City County Schools, making it clear that if Jones did not rescind his request, his father — a carpenter — would never find work in town again.

Byrd also paid a visit to the all-black faculty meeting at Bruton Heights School that day and told the staff that if Jones kept trying to attend James Blair, he would shut down Bruton Heights and fire all the teachers.

“He made a lot of threats, and I think he would have made good on them,” Jones said.

And, Jones said, as a result of Byrd's attitude and behavior, Rawls Byrd Elementary School needs a new name.

Jones is organizing former students and teachers in an effort to persuade the current W-JCC School Board to change the name of the school. He said there were “quite a few” people involved in the movement, and roughly 10 people were coordinating a strategy to get the name changed.

Jones said the group will likely present their case during the public comment period at the School Board's April 12 meeting.

“This has been a subject of discussion among blacks in the area for quite a while, but no one has taken action yet,” Jones said. “It's something that I've wanted to do, and I'm not getting any younger.”

On March 10, the Henrico County School Board voted unanimously to change the name of Harry F. Byrd Middle School, which was named for the former state senator and governor whose leadership of the Massive Resistance movement stalled integration of schools.

Jones, who is now a 73-year-old retired Green Beret, said Henrico's actions have encouraged him to take up the cause of getting the name changed.

“Today's black kids should not be subjected to attending a school named after an individual who denied their parents and grandparents the opportunity for an education,” Jones said.

Two public Byrds

As historians have dug into the past, two different Rawls Byrds emerge.

The Rawls Byrd of public record was a man who helped shape Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools as they are known today.

In 1953, he oversaw the merger of the Williamsburg and James City County school systems, which was a controversial move at the time and one that many predicted would never work. He served as superintendent from 1928 to 1964.

Upon his retirement The Virginia Gazette painted a picture of his influence:

A July 10, 1964, editorial reads: “The story of Rawls Byrd is, in a very literal sense, the story of public schools in Williamsburg and James City County. … it seems a shame he must retire.”

Yet a different Rawls Byrd emerges for the black students and teachers who learned and worked under him.

Vivian Bland, 82, remembers meeting the superintendent as part of a government class project. The students had the chance to ask Byrd questions, so Bland asked him why Bruton Heights did not have any foreign language classes.

“Mr. (Rawls) Byrd's answer to me was, ‘You learn to speak English correctly and maybe you can have a foreign language,' ” Bland said.

Bland also said she remembers Rawls Byrd refusing to shake the hands of black students graduating from Bruton Heights.

“It may seem like small gestures, but it was just consistently trying to demean and not give a person their due justice,” she said. “He made it known how he felt about us.”

Brady Graham, 83, began teaching at Bruton Heights in 1959. He said he feared integration because of a speech Rawls Byrd made at a PTA meeting.

“I still remember Mr. Byrd coming to a PTA meeting at Bruton Heights and saying to the audience that he could visualize white teachers teaching blacks, but he could not visualize black teachers teaching whites,” Graham said. “That was the assumption — that if they integrated, all the black teachers would be fired.”

Graham also remembered Rawls Byrd's threats the day Jones applied for a transfer to James Blair. And he repeated a claim many from the era have made about Byrd, that he said he would retire before he would oversee an integrated school system.

A June 5, 1964, Virginia Gazette story reported that 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against segregation, five black students had applied for admission into Matthew Whaley Elementary School and James Blair High School.

On June 23 of the same year, School Board chairman John E. Wray stepped down in protest over the integration. Rawls Byrd announced his retirement on July 7.

Claims need evidence

While Byrd's attitude toward race relations is not as documented as staunch segregationists such as Harry F. Byrd, historian Jodi Allen said the oral history of people who interacted with him should not be discounted.

Allen is a visiting assistant professor of history at the College of William and Mary, and the managing director of the Lemon Project — a project aimed at rectifying the college's oppression of blacks throughout slavery and Jim Crow eras.

Researchers for the Lemon Project interviewed several students and teachers who attended W-JCC schools during the segregation era, and Allen said the same picture keeps emerging.

“You can't trust any source in and of itself. They all have to be supported with evidence,” Allen said. “The fact that everyone talks about him in the same way, I think we can say he had segregationist leanings.”

Current School Board Vice Chairwoman Kyra Cook said she is not surprised to hear there is interest in getting the name changed, but she declined to comment on whether she thinks it is necessary. She said she has studied the issue as other localities have dealt with similar situations.

Cook said if name-change activists make compelling arguments during the public comment period at School Board meetings, the board could ask the superintendent's office to look into it and make a recommendation for the board to vote on.

One of the factors in changing the name is the cost of rebranding. In Henrico, school officials estimate it will spend roughly $13,000 in replacing a sign, scoreboard signage, rug and stationery, all emblazoned with “Byrd.”

W-JCC spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith said the district has not looked into the cost of a name change because the issue has not been formally brought to the board for discussion.

Former School Board member Joe Fuentes said he heard rumblings about the name at different points during his 10-year tenure, but there was never a clear effort to get it changed.

“I was always wondering if that was going to happen,” he said. “I knew that day is going to come and someone is going to say, ‘You really need to change that.' ”

McKinnon can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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