School Board to discuss Rawls Byrd name change

Contact Reporterjmckinnon@vagazette.com

WILLIAMSBURG — A grassroots effort to rename Rawls Byrd Elementary School has the attention of the Williamsburg-James City County School Board.

Lafayette Jones and Edith "Cookie" Heard grew up as black students with Rawls Byrd as their school superintendent. This spring, Jones, Heard and others began sharing stories about their experiences with Byrd and his views toward race and segregating schools.

The School Board took notice, and on Tuesday, board members are scheduled to discuss whether Rawls Byrd Elementary should be renamed, and if so, how.

"I think it is time to have that discussion," said board chairman Jim Kelly. "Probably past time to have that discussion."

And although a majority of board members might agree it's time to discuss the proposal, a multitude of decisions will flow out of that discussion, including how the school is renamed, who gets to make the decision and what the new name might be.

The debate begins

While Heard, Jones and name-change supporter Oscar Blayton are passionate about renaming Rawls Byrd Elementary School, they are not so unified on what the new name should be.

On Wednesday, Heard, Jones and Blayton met to discuss what name should replace Byrd's.

"Personally, I'd use a geographical location. It is neutral," said Jones.

"I think there are a lot of deserving people both black and white," said Blayton. "I don't think it should automatically be determined it is one race or another. I say, let everyone come forward with their suggestions."

"I would like to see it named after a white person," said Heard. "We got four schools (named for blacks already)....How many more do you need?"

If the debate among the three is any indicator, the School Board has its work cut out for it if it decides to pursue a name change.

In Henrico County, the School Board sifted through more than 200 suggestions when changing the name of Harry F. Byrd Middle School this spring. The school was named for the former state senator and governor whose leadership of the Massive Resistance movement stalled integration of schools.

Eventually, the Henrico Board opted to rename the school Quioccasin Middle School. Quioccasin is both the name of the road where the school sits and a Native American word meaning "gathering place," the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

One of the main arguments against changing the name of the Henrico school was the cost of replacing all things emblazoned with the school name.

Henrico school officials initially estimated it would cost $136,000 to replace everything bearing Harry F. Byrd's name, but school officials told the Times-Dispatch they were working on lowering that price.

W-JCC spokesperson Betsy Overkamp-Smith said, based on initial estimates, changing the name of Rawls Byrd could cost $9,000. She said that factors in the cost to replace a Byrd logo on the front counter, the logo on the gym floor, signage around the school, office supplies and spirit gear.

The $9,000 estimate does not include the cost of changing the sign in the front of the school, which Overkamp-Smith said could be a big expense.

Muted opposition to name change

If name-change activists seem like they are getting ahead of themselves by debating new names before the School Board has had any formal discussion on the issue, they say they are basing their optimism on the response they have gotten so far.

In spite of the cost and potential controversy over choosing a new name, the vast majority of those speaking on the issue at School Board meetings have voiced support for changing the name.

Close to 20 members of the York-James City-Williamsburg NAACP came to the Board meeting on April 19 in support of changing the name of Rawls Byrd Elementary School.

On Wednesday, Byrd's daughter, Anne Byrd James, 81, said she understood why people wanted to change the name, although the prospect made her sad.

"I do think he made a contribution to education in Williamsburg and James City County, and I'm sorry it's come to this, but we all grow with the times," she said. "I find it sad that Rawls Byrd was honored in his day for the positive contributions he made to the local school system by having a school named after him. Now, in hindsight, it seems the negative side of his efforts overshadow the positive."

James, who now lives in Atlanta, said her father's attitude toward integration was a product of his time period.

And she said even if her father had not been an advocate for integration, he worked hard to improve the educational prospects for black students at the time.

"It was different world. He fought for separate but equal. That's what they did in the '40s," she said. "He wanted to see that (the black students) got educated. At first I seem to remember early on they didn't have a very nice school prior to Bruton Heights, and he did fight to get them a new building and facility."

Support for a process

At the May 10 meeting, board members Jim Beers (Roberts), Holly Taylor (Stonehouse), Sandy Young (Berkeley) and Julie Hummel (Williamsburg) all expressed support for considering a name change.

Beers said the board not only needs to change the name, it also needs to write policy dictating how schools are named in the future.

"I'm very supportive of changing the name of Rawls Byrd, but I am also equally supportive of creating a comprehensive policy that focuses on how we name and rename," Beers said. "I don't mean just do it arbitrarily."

In a May 18 memo to School Board members, Superintendent Steve Constantino laid out two options: consider a name change without writing new policy, or first write name-change policy and then consider a name change.

If the board decided to consider renaming Rawls Byrd without first adopting a new policy, the board would use a survey or public hearing to gauge public opinion and appoint a committee to evaluate name change options.

Constantino's memo said if the board decides to first adopt a policy, it could force the reconsideration of other school names. For example, if the board decided to follow Virginia School Board Association's policy to only name schools after people who have already died, then Lois Hornsby Middle School would need to be renamed as well.

Constantino's memo said Chesapeake, Chesterfield, Hampton, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Surry and the Virginia School Board Association all have renaming policies, while Newport News, Poquoson, Suffolk, Virginia Beach and York do not.

McKinnon can be reached at 757-345-2341.

School Board Meeting

When: 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 24

Where: City Council Chambers in the Stryker Center: 412 N. Boundary Street, Williamsburg

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