W-JCC decides on Rawls Byrd name change

Out with Rawls Byrd and in with Laurel Lane Elementary School.

The Williamsburg-James City County School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to make the name change that has been close to a year in the making.

Activists spoke out at board meetings last spring, decrying anti-integration actions of the former superintendent for whom the school was named.

Students were to be informed of the change to Laurel Lane during morning announcements, and the new name will be established by the first day of school on Sept. 5.

Laurel Lane is the street on which the school sits, and the school’s principal Karen Swann said the new name creates a sense of community in the neighborhood. It will be the fourth elementary school named for a location, as were James River, Stonehouse and Norge.

“(Rawls Byrd) contributed a lot to this community, but it’s a different time and we move forward with the decision reached by the board,” Swann said. “We acknowledge that this change reflects the diversity of the community and at the end of the day, it’s about the teaching and the kids.”

During discussions leading up to the decision, board members hesitated renaming the school after a person, but that hasn’t stopped boards before them.

In addition to Rawls Byrd, nine of W-JCC’s 16 schools are named for people. One school even honors two people with the same name.

At the Jan. 17 meeting, school board parliamentarian Julie Hummel (Williamsburg) said when people started talking about Rawls Byrd the man instead of Rawls Byrd the school; she realized she didn’t know the history behind the school’s namesake.

So who or what are the other W-JCC schools named after?

Elementary Schools

W-JCC’s oldest school by far, Matthew Whaley Elementary School opened as Mattey’s Free School around 1706 to serve the area’s neediest children, current principal Robin Ford said. Mary Whaley opened it in honor of her son, Matthew, who died at nine years old.

There are rumors that young Mattey still haunts the place, though where the school is now is not its original space.

“Over the years different staff members have expressed that they’ve felt the presence of someone or something in the building at different times,” Ford said. “The children’s awareness seems to be limited to there are rumors that there are ghosts.”

According to W-JCC documents, Mary Whaley left the school and its endowment to the College of William and Mary to continue using it for educating needy children. Before the location on Scotland Street opened in 1931, it was in a building where the Governor’s Palace is now in Colonial Williamsburg.

Three elementary schools are named for prominent African-Americans: Clara Byrd Baker, D.J. Montague and J. Blaine Blayton.

Born in 1886, Clara Byrd Baker spent her life teaching children and fighting for racial and gender equality in Williamsburg. In 1989, her legacy was formally recognized by W-JCC schools when they named a new elementary school in her honor.

An African-American teacher, Baker’s first assignment was in a one-room James City County schoolhouse in 1902, according to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, which details the lives of some prominent Virginians.

With the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Baker is said to be one of the first women to vote in Williamsburg. She was a prominent member in many community organizations and promoted interracial cooperation and women’s rights.

D.J. Montague Elementary School also opened in 1989, bearing the name of a former principal in W-JCC schools. Montague presided over W-JCC’s black high schools — Bruton Heights and, after it opened, Berkeley High School — until 1966.

After taking a break from the division, Montague returned as the director of placement and employee and community relations from 1973 until he retired in 1975.

J. Blaine Blayton opened his medical practice in Williamsburg in 1931 and settled to the south, in the Grove community with his family, according to w-jcc records. He opened a maternity hospital and another 14-bed hospital for African-Americans in the area, before helping open the first integrated one in 1961.

Blayton’s son, Oscar, was the first black person to attend William and Mary, enrolling as an undergrad in 1963, according to W-JCC records. W-JCC opened the school in his name in 2010.

Four years after the college, W-JCC took on integration when it opened the Norge School in 1967 where white and black enrollment was roughly even, according to W-JCC records. Because of the success at Norge, which served grades 1-6 at the time, the rest of the division officially integrated in 1969, according to W-JCC records.

The name comes from the area in northern James City County where the school was established. Names for James River and Stonehouse elementary schools both stem from nearby geographical points as well.

One of the division’s newest schools, Matoaka Elementary School opened in 2007 and takes its name from Pocahontas.

Pocahontas was the nickname for Chief Powhatan’s daughter whose private name was Matoaka, according to National Park Service records.

Her fame stems from her role as a negotiator with the English and Captain John Smith’s story of how she saved him — the truth of which has been debated for centuries — and her eventual marriage to John Rolfe in 1614.

Middle Schools

Construction on the original Rawls Byrd Elementary School began in the early 1960s, at the same time the school division decided to build an all-black high school named after Governor Sir William Berkeley.

Berkeley was governor of Virginia — then a colony — from 1642-52 and again from 1660-77. He was a playwright and a scholar, a favorite of King Charles and a well-respected governor, according to the National Park Service Historic Jamestowne site.

Nathaniel Bacon, Berkeley’s cousin by marriage, tarred Berkeley’s legacy with his rebellion in 1676. Berkeley hanged 23 people — not including Bacon who died earlier — for their part in the rebellion and seized rebels’ land without granting a trial first, according to NPS records.

An investigation ensued and Berkeley returned to England, where he died in 1677.

Fifty years before Berkeley was built, Toano also started as a high school, open for white students only in 1911.

According to W-JCC records, it was the only white high school between James City County and Richmond. The name Toano is taken from the town in upper James City County where the school sits.

Opened in 2010, Lois Hornsby is W-JCC’s newest middle school. The mother of musician Bruce Hornsby, Lois Hornsby is a longtime Williamsburg resident, philanthropist and advocate of public education.

James Blair Middle School, which opens its doors again in 2018, was a high school when first established in 1955. Though students enrolled there one year after the groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregation in schools, Blair was another whites-only school, according to W-JCC records.

Named for the first president of the College of William and Mary, the Rev. James Blair came to Virginia in 1685 and helped establish the college, according to Colonial Williamsburg documents.

High Schools

After reorganization in 1969, James Blair was the only high school in the division until Lafayette came along in 1973, according to W-JCC documents.

There are two famous Revolutionary War-era Lafayettes, so, which one is the school named after?

Both.

The Marquis de Lafayette, a major general in the continental army, is known for his leadership during the Yorktown Campaign where Britain’s Lord Cornwallis surrendered in 1781.

Less known is James Armistead Lafayette.

He was a slave who volunteered to serve during the Revolutionary War and was assigned to the Marquis de Lafayette, who eventually made him a spy. After the war ended, the Marquis helped Armistead lobby for his own freedom — the law that freed slaves who had become soldiers did not apply to Armistead, according to Colonial Williamsburg Foundation records.

In 1786 the Virginia General Assembly granted his emancipation and because of the Marquis’ affect on his life, Armistead added the name Lafayette to his own.

“I think that that was a very smart move at the time,” school spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith said of the school honoring both men. “You have two people with the same surname and both of them are worthy of recognition.”

Jamestown High School, which opened in 1997, takes its name from the first permanent English settlement in the America’s — which also happens to be up the road from where the school sits now on John Tyler Highway.

Warhill High School opened in 2007 and is named for what it sounds like: a war that took place on a hill — the Battle of Spencer’s Ordinary, to be specific.

According to Colonial Williamsburg Foundation records, Spencer’s Ordinary was an area about six miles northwest of Williamsburg. A historical marker for the event sits near the school at Richmond and Lightfoot roads.

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

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