How A Wave Of Segregationist Tributes, From Streets To Schools, Entrenched The Idea Of White Supremacy
- Written by Mechelle Hankerson | email@example.com | 757-889-9466
- Category: Local News
- Published: 02 March 2021
Editor's Note: This story was written and produced as part of a partnership with Virginia Media.
By Lisa Vernon Sparks and Saleen Martin
Locals see names on streets, roadways and parks ― John B. Magruder and Jefferson Davis come to mind. For some, they are just instructional, for others they are a painful reminder.
Students wear sweatshirts bearing such names ― consider Maury High ― to show school spirit.
Even Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson had legal holidays dedicated to their honor.
These men, sometimes called segregationists, supported a world to keep Black people enslaved or subordinate, thus fostering white supremacy.
Scattered across Hampton Roads, memorials to their honor take the form of monuments, plaques, statues, street signs, schools and building names.
Many segregationists are still revered as heroes or a part of some shared heritage, even 150 years after the first tributes appeared in Virginia. A bitter legacy for others, they evoke painful memories. In the wake of renewed calls for social justice, many such tributes are being removed.
“Two groups of people can see the same monument, and both will have a different vision and meaning of its purpose,” Calvin Pearson, a Hampton historian and co-founder of Project 1619 Inc., wrote in an email. “These monuments have shaped the perspective of people of color for many generations because it reminds them that their ancestors were not considered citizens.”
The topic of changing school names that honor segregationists came front and center in several districts across Hampton Roads last year.
Maury High School, named after oceanographer and Virginia native Matthew Fontaine Maury, and other Norfolk schools are being reviewed. Some schools in Portsmouth will indeed have new names, as well as four Newport News schools.
But why were such names given in the first place?
Dedicating public spaces, streets and schools to segregationists was deliberate, said Dan Margolies, a history professor at Virginia Wesleyan University who teaches about the Civil War.
Some reasons were obvious ― white people wanted to honor Confederate soldiers as heroes.
“That’s why there’s Lee Highway and Jefferson Davis Highway and all these schools named after Lee, and Jeb Stuart, and Jefferson Davis,” said Margolies.
Retaliation against the civil rights movement and changing the narrative about what the Confederacy stood for were other reasons, Margolies said. When the Confederates lost the war in 1865, the claim became that it was a Lost Cause and the soldiers were honorable, Margolies said.
“Their objective was to claim that it was not slavery, and the defense of slavery, but state’s rights,” he said.
This new interpretation changed the perception for some people, especially some of his students from the western part of the Commonwealth, he said.
“People come every year and they just have a completely mistaken impression of what the Confederacy was about, what the leaders were about,” he said.
The message that these tributes send to Black people, Margolies said, is mainly about white supremacy and social control.
But people are challenging the status quo.
In Downtown Portsmouth during a June melee, protesters spray-painted and beheaded a 127-year old Confederate monument. One man was injured during the incident.
Portsmouth’s Woodrow Wilson High School, named after the former president, also is seeing a day of reckoning.
Wilson often is remembered for his international diplomacy. He also brought back segregated federal departments and opposed the voting rights of Black people. Wilson said Black people were “an ignorant and inferior race,” according to Pilot archives.
He also screened the controversial film, “The Birth of a Nation,” at the White House.
The city has had a school named for Wilson since 1918, but the building has changed several times.
The current school on Elmhurst Lane was created when Cradock, Manor and Wilson high schools were consolidated in 1993. A year earlier, students protested the decision to change the name of Manor High School.
Hundreds gathered between classes, spending 45 minutes outside the school and in the Manor common area, criticizing then-Superintendent Richard D. Trumble and the School Board for “going behind our backs”' to rename the building Woodrow Wilson High.
Most recently, a petition to change the name back to Manor garnered over 4,700 signatures, and in December, the school board voted to do so.
Beginning July 1, the names of Wilson High School, James Hurst and John Tyler elementary will be changed to Manor High School, Cradock Elementary and Waterview Elementary.
Board member Costella Williams said the idea was to name the schools after their communities in order to unify the students.
Some national monuments have altered their tributes as well. Officials at Fort Monroe removed the letters that spelled “Jefferson Davis” from a wrought-iron arch memorial in 2019. Davis, the Confederate’s only president, was incarcerated at Fort Monroe at the end of the Civil War.
Margolies said there is a massive social movement in the works, referring to the numerous protests against Confederate monuments, petitions against school names and demands for justice over the police killings of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“People are waking up,” he said.
Long-term Effects From Segregationist Tributes
The impact of Black people repeatedly seeing these images on their way to the store, or to work or school can manifest itself in different ways.
Repeated exposure to these images can have long-term effects, according to Arline Geronimus, a University of Michigan Health Behavior and Health Education professor.
It’s called “weathering,” a term she coined.
Geronimus’ theory is that social exclusion, discrimination and racism leads to early health deterioration in Black people, particularly women.
“What I’ve seen over the years of my research and lifetime is that the stressors that impact people of color are chronic and repeated through their whole life course, and in fact may even be at their height in the young adult-through-middle-adult ages rather than in early life,” Geronimus told National Public Radio on a podcast. “And that increases a general health vulnerability — which is what weathering is.”
Terri Best, a retired administrator for Newport News Public Schools and current school board member, remembers how it affected her.
As an elementary school student, she dreamed of going to Huntington High School, but during the summer of 1971, her father told her she couldn’t. The Newport News school district put in a cross-town busing plan, a result of desegregation, Best said. Busing created a shuffling of students and school districts.
Huntington High School became Huntington Intermediate School, Best said. Instead of staying at Walter Reed Elementary, she would go to Stonewall Jackson Elementary.
She read in a family encyclopedia about Jackson and learned about his role as a Confederate leader.
“It was kind of a positive writing about him,” she said. “Wow. Had they won the war, we would still be slaves. That made me upset. I didn’t like him. I didn’t like what he stood for and I did not like going to a school named after him.”
Best said she was well-behaved and a good student, but her dismay began to show in her actions and grades.
“At this school, there were white teachers and white students,” she said. “It was different. And then on top of all of that, I’m in this school named after this person.”
TaNiya Bellamy, a 2019 graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School, remembers talking about Portsmouth’s Confederate monument in her AP History class.
Most of her classmates thought these monuments were “just history” and shouldn’t be removed.
Bellamy said the class was small, and there wasn’t much of an African American presence. As one of a few Black students in the class, she went with it.
“For a long time, I think that I internalized that,” she said, before talking about how college has opened her eyes. “Being in different classes, learning, I was like ‘I really let that slide.’ I really didn’t push the change. I struggled with that.”
Even down to her school name, she realizes it just became something she felt she had to accept.
Bellamy learned more about Wilson when studying political science at Virginia State University — including his White House screening of the 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.” The film, historians say, was used to recruit Ku Klux Klan members.
“That was the most shocking thing,” she said, before noting that students at Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas also want their school renamed. “Openly endorsing the Ku Klux Klan through everything that was going on, that was pretty mind-blowing to me.”
Changing the name is long overdue, she said. She and other Portsmouth students want to be part of that change eventually..
“A lot of us ended up going to Virginia State and pretty much have the same majors across the board: criminal justice and poly sci,” Bellamy said. “We’ve all come to that consensus that if things are going to change, it’s going to be us. That includes moving the monuments and changing the street names and school names.”