Even though it’s 2016, we’re still obsessed with issues from over 50 years ago. Segregation is still big news in politics, even though we’ve had an African American President for nearly 8 years.
On October 19, 1966, the Henrico County School Board agreed to name the county’s next high school in honor of former Governor and U.S. Senator Harry Flood Byrd Sr. The move was unusual because no other school in the county had been named for a living person, according to the next day’s article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Byrd, 79, died the day the article ran. TODAY, they are talking about changing the name of that school AND a Henrico Middle School (Byrd Middle).
Critics of the name say it’s not right that schools with a 50 percent minority population, 20 percent of which is black, be named for someone who was a segregationist. Byrd voted against desegregation, aka “Massive Resistance”, and because of it, Virginia shut down schools that attempted to desegregate at the time.
This, in turn, led several fired-up mothers in Charlottesville to set about to making sure their broods got the education to which they were entitled—thus was born the Sisterhood. Officially known as the Parents Committee for Emergency Schooling and affectionately referred to as the Emergency Mothers. Ruth Caplin, Margaret Garnett, Peggy McLean, Emily Male, Nancy Manson, Mary Moon, Dorothy Owen, Evelyn Rathbone, Margaret Via, and Lillian Wilson began something of a “massive resistance” of their own. It is because of these women that 334 Venable Elementary School students and roughly 950 Lane High School students received an education at a time when Senator Byrd and other state lawmakers put politics first. I’ll tell you more tales of the Sisterhood later, but now back to recent events!
One argument that has been raised by at least two members of the School Board is that changing the name of Byrd would create a “slippery slope.” That argument, cited by many who oppose the name change, holds that acquiescing to the demand whitewashes history and puts at risk remembrances of anyone who took unpleasant stands by modern standards, such as the Civil War figures depicted in statues on Monument Avenue.
John T. Kneebone, chairman in the department of history and a professor specializing in the history of the American South and public history at Virginia Commonwealth University, understands that thinking. He said erecting a monument — and naming streets and schools — is an “act by the living generation to tell the future: You must remember this.’ ”
“I’m sympathetic to the argument some people have made that we should not tear down the statues but do a better job of telling the history around them,” Kneebone said. He added that “it is in the nature of democracies to debate the public meanings of the past, especially as expressed in monuments and named buildings, streets, etc.”
Opponents of removing the Byrd name from the school say it is a politically correct attempt to erase history.