Survey open for community input on Rawls Byrd name change

Next fall, some Williamsburg-James-City County elementary school students may attend Glasshouse, Helen Keller, Williamsburg or Pocahontas Elementary School.

The school division isn't building a new school in the next 10 months, just renaming an old one — Rawls Byrd Elementary School — and students, teachers and residents will have a say on the new name.

Students are voting on their favorite names through Nov. 2, and an online survey is open to the community until Nov. 13 on the school division's website.

The school, on Laurel Lane in Williamsburg, was named after Rawls Byrd, division superintendent from 1928 to 1964, was a controversial figure. Although segregation in schools was struck down by Brown v. Board in 1954, advocates say Byrd actively worked against integration by threatening families of students who applied to the area's all-white high schools, like Lafayette Jones.

Jones was one of those who spoke at an April 19 School Board meeting advocating for the name to change.

"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 told the Gazette in March.

The board voted on May 24 to begin the renaming process and as of November, current students at the school, ages 5 to 10, had narrowed down the options to eight names.

Last week, individual classes and grades at Rawls Byrd had discussions about renaming the school and came up with ideas, the school's principal Karen Swann said. Each grade level then submitted one name. Because there was overlap and the administrators felt some options were important to provide to the community, the list grew to eight possible names, Swann said.

The list includes people — Pocahontas, Helen Keller and Sarah G. B. Jones — and places. Jamestown and Williamsburg are contenders, as are Laurel Lane, the street the school sits on; Lake Powell, which is also in the area; and Glasshouse.

Glasshouse was suggested because glass was the first attempted industry in the new world and brought people of various backgrounds together, Swann said. There is a glass-making building called Glasshouse in Historic Jamestowne where glass furnaces were re-discovered and excavated in 1948.

Sarah Garland Boyd Jones was the first African-American woman to pass the Virginia Medical Board's exam in 1893 and became a doctor who treated white and black people in Richmond. Swann said Keller was suggested because she'd been a recent topic in some classes.

Carole Burton, Rawls Byrd's granddaughter, said she's still upset the name is changing, but if it's going to be renamed, it shouldn't be for another person.

"I'm for naming it something that is not after a person," Burton said. "That was my big thing. Don't take his name off it, and then name it after someone else."

Jones said he likes the suggestions the students came up with, particularly Laurel Lane. He said it was representative of the atmosphere in that area and went well with the mascot, which would not change, according to Swann.

"It's a pretty neutral name, not race related or anything like that," Jones said. "And I think the mascot – the penguin – and the name Laurel Lane go together, they're complimentary."

The survey also has a write-in option for people who feel strongly about a certain name not listed. More than 300 people had taken the survey by Tuesday afternoon, and three of them had written in "Rawls Byrd," according to Betsy Overkamp-Smith, chair of the division's renaming committee.

Swann said the community started the renaming process, so it was important to get their input.

"This was a community matter that was brought to the School Board as a concern," Swann said. "I think that it really just adds some thoughtfulness to this process … to seek information from all the stakeholders: family members, former teachers, students."

Once the survey closes on Nov. 13, the votes will be compiled, but results won't be announced until a School Board meeting in January, Overkamp-Smith said. The committee will create a presentation for the board and narrow down the options to three final names. The board makes the ultimate choice.

She said the goal is for a name be chosen in time for paperwork to go through a new signs be installed so the school can open with its new name in September 2017.

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-298-5172.

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