School & District Management

In Eight States, Public Schools Are Named for Segregationists

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 22, 2019 14 min read
Students at Strom Thurmond High School in Johnston, S.C., make their way to class late last year. The school—named in honor of one of South Carolina’s most influential politicians and most notable opponents to the integration of schools—has a student body that is 50 percent African-American. Past efforts to rename the school failed and a state law passed in the 1980s made the name permanent.
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About a two-hour drive south of Atlanta, in the city of Warner Robins, there’s an elementary school named for Richard B. Russell, Georgia’s longtime and powerful U.S. senator who died in 1971.

In a 1936 re-election campaign for the Senate, Russell, a Democrat, called America “a white man’s country,” and stressed his willingness to make sacrifices to “preserve and insure white supremacy.” Two decades later, he made his opposition to the racial desegregation of schools very public. And in 1964, he criticized the Civil Rights Act for overturning the separate-but-equal model in the South that aimed to solve “the problem of two races living side by side without eventual amalgamation and mongrelization of both.”

As of two years ago, according to the most recent federal data, four out of 10 students at the school memorializing him were black.

If you drive roughly 400 miles west of Warner Robins, you’ll reach Vardaman High School in Vardaman, Miss. Both the school—where about 13 percent of the students are black—and the town are named after James K. Vardaman, a Mississippi governor and U.S. senator in the early 20th century. He once declared in a speech that, if necessary, “Every Negro in the state will be lynched” in order to maintain white supremacy. And on the subject of educating black children, Vardaman stated, “The only effect of Negro education is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook.”

Special Coverage: The Schools That Bear the Names of Segregationists

Schools and other public structures that memorialize leaders of the Confederacy have gained intense attention and generated fierce arguments recently—Education Week has found 180 named after Confederates. But there’s another category of schools that raises similar issues about racial sensitivity while seldom attracting the same scrutiny: schools named after post-Civil War politicians who supported racial segregation up to and through the landmark progress for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

Tangled Legacy

If debates about the wisdom of naming schools for Confederate leaders are an entry point for considering how schools should remember and commemorate history, then the schools named after men like Russell and Vardaman represent the reach and complexities of those discussions.

Counting the number of schools (setting aside other structures and monuments) named after such leaders is difficult. That’s in part because Confederates are often better known than these post-Civil War politicians, and the most famous Confederates are smaller in number than the many federal, state, and local officials who resisted civil rights for blacks and supported racial segregation over many decades after the Civil War.

To highlight the issue while also focusing on the most powerful lawmakers who made their opposition to civil rights in education explicit and within living memory, Education Week created a database of schools named for the members of Congress who signed what was known as the Southern Manifesto. This 1956 document directly and vociferously opposed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared the de jure racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional. The review located 22 such public schools in eight Southern states named after just those leaders.

Enlarge graphic.

Russell signed the document. But Vardaman, who perhaps is an indication of how many schools and communities this issue might touch, was dead before it existed. Thousands of black children attend these schools. (For the sake of consistency and comparability, Education Week used National Center for Education Statistics data from the 2016-17 school year, the most recent federal K-12 information available for these schools’ demographics.)

Some of these men are more famous—and more infamous for their opposition to civil rights—than others. Strom Thurmond, the longtime U.S. senator from South Carolina, is perhaps the most prominent. But for some on the list, the most intense opposition to civil rights occurred in battles over public schools. And unlike with figures from the Confederacy, people alive today might have voted for signers of the Southern Manifesto and known them personally.

As with schools named for Confederates or other controversial figures, discussing what it means to memorialize these kinds of politicians is in large part a discussion of how to interpret American history. For some, there are noteworthy but not ultimately decisive differences between the two groups of men.

“I think things are clearer on the Confederate issue. We’ve had that conversation longer,” said Hilary O. Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington bureau director and its senior vice president for policy and advocacy.

Yet Shelton said even though segregationist politicians should be in history textbooks and museums to recognize their role in American history, and while many of them did make productive contributions to society, that attitude can only go so far.

“If you have something like a school that’s named for someone that’s worked to suppress opportunities for people on the basis of their race,” Shelton said, “that’s not the kind of person you want to celebrate.”

Jeremy Nesoff, an associate director at Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit group that provides professional development to secondary school teachers on controversial topics, said many students, educators, and others know little about figures their schools might memorialize. His group (which doesn’t directly advocate for school name changes) tells communities that “investigating local history, and not just in the feel good way ... but in an honest way, can be very revealing about dilemmas in local communities and at the national level.”

In making decisions about things like school names, Nesoff said, it’s helpful to ask, “Are we erasing that past? Or are we upholding legacies of racism and discrimination? I think those are very productive conversations for students to have.”

‘Resist Forced Integration’

In the Southern Manifesto, officially titled the Declaration of Constitutional Principles, federal lawmakers said that through its Brown ruling, “The Supreme Court of the United States, with no legal basis for such action, undertook to exercise their naked judicial power and substituted their personal political and social ideas for the established law of the land.”

They also said the 1954 ruling “is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races” and was “certain to destroy the system of public education in some of the States.” Finally, the document praised Southern states “which have declared the intention to resist forced integration by any lawful means.” It foreshadowed a host of moves by Southern politicians in states like Alabama, Arkansas, and Virginia to oppose the integration of public schools.

Aside from Russell and Thurmond, lawmakers who signed the manifesto included Sen. Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, Sen. Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana, Sens. J. William Fulbright and John L. McClellan of Arkansas, Rep. John L. Pilcher of Georgia, Sen. John Sparkman of Alabama, and Sen. John C. Stennis of Mississippi. All these signers of the document were Democrats, and all have had traditional public schools or student vocational centers named after them in their home states.

“They were substituting their judgment for the judgment of the Supreme Court. They knew what they were doing,” said Noliwe Rooks, a professor at Cornell University who has studied segregation in education. “It was a very clear document. They weren’t confused. They disbelieved that they should be held accountable.”

Notable lawmakers who did not sign include Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas—who, as president, later signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965—and Sen. Al Gore Sr. of Tennessee.

The contemporary racial makeup of schools named after Southern Manifesto signers varies considerably. As of 2016-17, Sparkman Elementary School in Hartselle, Ala., just 3 percent of students—seven out of 222—were black. But at Strom Thurmond High, in Johnston, S.C., 415 students, or 50 percent of the school’s enrollment of 830 students, were black.

In general, as these politicians from the Jim Crow era fade and are placed in the past tense, fewer white students and more children of color are attending schools named for them, mirroring a national trend in public education. The availability of federal demographic data, or the existence of such data at all, varies from school to school. But starting as recently as the 2005-06 school year, and as far back as 1987-88, at least 16 of these schools had seen their share of non-white students increase by 2016-17.

Choices to Make

In a handful of recent cases, education leaders have decided to cast aside names of prominent segregationists.

In 2016, for example, a Virginia district stripped Byrd’s name from a middle school. In addition to signing the Southern Manifesto, Byrd helped lead the state’s “massive resistance” to school integration.

Yet different communities don’t necessarily follow the same path on this issue.

In North Carolina’s Guilford County, the school board voted in 2017 to rename Aycock Middle School after a long-time local school administrator. The school had been named for Gov. Charles B. Aycock, who was known in that state as the “Education Governor.” Historical studies have also found that as a prominent backer of white supremacy who once called whites “the thoroughbreds,” Aycock helped trigger an 1898 North Carolina race riot in which dozens of people died.

But in North Carolina’s Wayne County, the district has kept the name of Charles B. Aycock High School, where about one out of five students is black, although a local chapter of the NAACP signalled its opposition to the name in 2015.

In 2017, a University of Mississippi advisory committee unanimously agreed that James K. Vardaman’s name should be removed from a building on its Oxford campus. The committee’s report noted Vardaman’s use of “racial hatred” to achieve his political ends. And noting Vardaman’s opposition to education for blacks, the committee said, “This anti-educational stance appears especially at odds with the University’s mission and core values today.” The name-change hasn’t been finalized yet.

The issue doesn’t have the same resonance in Mississippi’s Calhoun County district, where Vardaman High School (along with Vardaman Elementary School) are located—indeed, it’s unclear whether it’s talked about at all.

During her 20 years working in Calhoun County schools, Superintendent Lisa Langford said she has “never heard one word mentioned” about any discomfort with the names of the two public schools in Vardaman.

Schools need not be named for the town where they’re located. But Langford noted that other schools in the county, like the Vardaman elementary and high schools, are named for the cities where they are located.

Asked about the idea of black students going to schools named for a man who insulted the idea of educating such children, Langford said, “I don’t want anyone in our district to be offended by anything that we’re doing, no matter what it is.” And she said she would welcome a discussion if people raised worries about or opposition to the school names.

However, Langford said, “Until it becomes a problem, it’s not a problem. I have a lot of fish to fry.”

And in other places, some officials have cited cost as a factor in decisions not to change school names. Last year, Virginia’s Fairfax County district estimated it would cost $368,000 to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School, named for a Confederate general. The school board recently voted to change the name to Justice High School.

‘White Resistance to Law’

Those who signed the Southern Manifesto, and others with similar views, have public records extending beyond their views and actions on civil rights in schools.

Fulbright of Arkansas is known for the prestigious scholarship named after him that provides research and study opportunities to students in more than 140 countries, and for his work on foreign relations, particularly during the Vietnam War, which he came to oppose. McClellan had a substantial footprint in Senate investigations into subversive activities during the Cold War, and for his probes of organized crime.

And Russell wrote the original National School Lunch Act, which by one estimate provided daily free or reduced-cost meals to 30 million low-income students in fiscal 2017.

The manifesto was not a clear-cut issue for Southern politicians in the 1950s who did not make racial segregation their calling card, said Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas’ J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, which is named for the senator. Lawmakers like Fulbright had to weigh the damage not signing the document might do to their tenure in the Senate.

In a 1997 article for Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Cambridge University Professor Tony Badger wrote that Fulbright said he signed the document only reluctantly, and after securing changes to the manifesto that moderated its tone. Badger noted that Fulbright never disavowed this position.

“He still participated in a defense of something that was indefensible. But he was a politician. He understood that this was a show of Southern unity,” Parry said. “If he didn’t participate, he could be pilloried for it later. He was constantly balancing what he knew was good public policy with what his constituency could tolerate.”

In the context of education and formal commemoration, distinctions between men like Fulbright and Thurmond are important when considering their respective public legacies, said Kevin Kruse, a Princeton University professor who has studied segregation and race in South.

Just as men like George Washington owned slaves but are not primarily remembered as slave owners, Kruse said, “Fulbright backed segregation in a lot of ways. But that’s not what he’s primarily known for.”

By contrast, “I would see a school named after Thurmond like a school named after [Robert E.] Lee,” Kruse added. “His claim to fame really was that opposition to civil rights from Truman up through the Johnson era and beyond. Lee is clearly the worst case. But I would put Thurmond in the same ballpark.”

The various lawmakers’ records diverge in the years after the Southern Manifesto, and their actions sometimes reflect a shift in attitudes or at least priorities.

In 1970, Fulbright spearheaded the Senate’s rejection of President Richard Nixon’s nominee to the Supreme Court, G. Harrold Carswell, who was prominent for his hostility to civil rights and support for segregation. In 1982, Stennis broke with his previous record by supporting an extension of the Voting Rights Act, although the following year, he voted against making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.

Still, Rooks said, while these men may not have fomented secession and massive armed conflict like their Confederate predecessors, their reaction to Brown is directly linked to situations like the deployment of Army troops to uphold the Brown decision, as in the case of Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.

“You have this white resistance to law,” Rooks said. “It’s arguable that a kid sitting in a Strom Thurmond school would have no idea who he is. All you know is that the school is named after someone that matters.”

A Welcoming School

Time might render the issue moot in some communities. At McClellan High School, a magnet school where 719 of the school’s 806 students were black in 2016-17, students will be reassigned to a new high school in 2020, and the plan is to convert the school into a K-8 facility.

Through a spokeswoman, Little Rock district Superintendent Mike Poore said that to the best of his knowledge, concern about the school’s name “has not been raised” during his tenure. A final decision about the new K-8 building’s name hasn’t been reached, although the district said many McClellan alumni are interested in maintaining the school’s name.

Parry said that in Arkansas, any discussion about changing the names of schools named after men like McClellan and Fulbright would be “robust.” What might be decisive, she said, is whether pressure to rename such schools came from inside their respective communities or from outside.

Asked whether renaming schools named after ardent segregationists should be a priority for communities compared to other socioeconomic challenges they might face, Nesoff of Facing History and Ourselves, stressed he “would never want to tell a community what the right choice for them is to focus on.” But he added that students who are made aware of who their buildings commemorate and want to explore the matter further should not be ignored either.

“The things that make a school a welcoming and safe community are not just the resources that are put there,” he said.

Education Week Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as A Jim Crow Era Vestige Lingers in Eight States


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