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Teaching & Learning

With Name Changes, Schools Transform Racial Reckoning Into Real-Life Civics Lessons

By Corey Mitchell — December 18, 2020 7 min read
Photograph of T.C. Williams High School from King Street Facing North.

Each day that Lorraine Johnson stepped on campus at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., she struggled to shake the fact that the school’s namesake fought for decades to prevent black and white students from attending school together.

Johnson, a senior at the school, is among the Black students that led the push to change the name of the storied school, featured in the 2000 movie “Remember the Titans,” because of the segregationist views held by Thomas Chambliss Williams, the former school district superintendent for whom the school is named.

The demographics of the 4,100-student high school just outside of Washington, D.C., represent a city and school system that looks much different than it did when segregation was the law—or even when it was encouraged. About 42 percent of students are Hispanic, 27 percent are Black, 25 percent are white, and 4 percent are Asian. The remaining 4 percent of students identify as multiracial, Native American, or Alaskan Native.

The push to rename schools in Alexandria is part of a national conversation and reckoning on who schools and other public places are named for. As protests against systemic racism and police brutality surfaced across the United States this summer after the police killing of George Floyd, students nationwide joined and even led campaigns to rename schools that honor segregationists, slave owners, and Confederate leaders.

People who want to keep the names maintain that they are pushing back against agitators who want to wipe away history. Activists and students who support changing the names have argued that schools should not honor racists and people who supported or fought to preserve the institution of slavery.

At the very least, the discussions have exposed students to an unvarnished, more complete version of history. Supported by the school district, the effort in Alexandria laid out history lessons and encouraged civic engagement to give students a voice and stake in purging the legacy of a man who was convinced that white and Black students learned differently. Because of that belief, Williams resisted efforts to desegregate the city’s schools during his nearly three-decade tenure as district leader from the mid-1930s to 1963.

“You cannot separate the culture from the name,” said Ra’Alim Shabazz, who teaches honors government, social justice, and global majority studies classes at the school. “To look at our school community today, it is no longer a good fit for who we are.”

In November, the district school board voted unanimously to rename T.C. Williams and Matthew Maury Elementary School, which honors a naval officer who joined the Confederacy during the Civil War, with plans to rename the schools in spring 2021. The district has invited students to present names for consideration through an essay and poster competition. Later in the process, the district will also allow residents to submit suggestions.

In her role as student school board representative, she joined Zoom meetings to help the board and district leaders understand how students felt about the school renaming and other issues of racial equity even though she could not vote on the issue.

Now that the district has decided to change the name of the school, engaged students such as Johnson and sophomore Aaliyah Royster want to work alongside school district administrators and teachers such as Shabazz to address present day problems.

The change “seems like a small thing but it can have a big domino effect,” Royster said. “There are so many disparities based on race here.”

First Steps

The Alexandria schools began the so-called “Identity Project” in response to petitions from residents demanding name changes for the schools. The district seized on the opportunity to offer a real-life experience in civics education and developed social studies lessons for high school and elementary school students that delve into the biographies of Williams and Maury and the eras they lived in.

“There’s a lot in a name,” said district Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, an African American and a T.C. Williams graduate. “But changing the game isn’t going to solve all the systemic racism. We still have so much more work to do. This is just literally the first step.”

The racial disparities in student discipline and access to advanced courses run deep at T.C. Williams, federal civil rights data show. White students are four times more likely to be enrolled in honors courses than Hispanic students and black students are twice as likely to be suspended as white students.

Over the summer, Johnson helped organize student-led Black Lives Matter marches in the Washington area. Efforts to engage with students and encourage civic participation should extend well beyond the Identity Project, she said.

“You can’t lose sight of the students in the process,” Johnson said. “We have our own stories to tell.”

In places such as Marietta, Ga., and Tyler, Texas, students contributed to public debates on name changes for their schools. Most of the schools in question were named in the 1950s and 1960s for Confederate heroes as part of a white resistance to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which established that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Most of the schools named in that case are concentrated in seven Southern states, including Virginia.

At the beginning of June, at least 215 schools in 18 states were named for with ties to the Confederacy. Since late June, at least 23 Confederate-named schools have changed names, but not all the campaigns and debates over renaming schools had the backing of public leaders.

In October, San Francisco Mayor London Breed criticized the timing of the debate over renaming schools there. Breed said that, amid the pandemic, the school district should focus on getting children back into classrooms if it really wants to address equity and systemic racism. The school district is weighing plans to rename a third of the city’s public schools, 42 in all.

“The fact that our kids aren’t in school is what’s driving inequity in our city—not the name of a school,” said Breed, a graduate of the San Francisco schools and the first African-American woman to lead her city.

Breed’s stance raises the question of how students can effect change in their schools when they do not have adults backing their efforts.

Tools to Engage

Alexandria student leaders and Hutchings, the district superintendent, think the change there signals a generational shift in teenage activism on issues of symbolic and structural racism in the Washington suburb and perhaps nationwide.

During his time as a district student, Hutchings said his parents had to file a petition after he was denied access to the school’s honors program. Beyond his own struggles, he “didn’t know how to articulate disparities,” he said. “But I knew we had them.”

Now, with easy access to information and tools, such as social media or via the internet, students have everything they need to mobilize and affect change—whether adults approve or not.

“They know what’s going on and they have the tools to engage,” said Leah Brown, a historian and the assistant director of education at the Moton Museum in Prince Edward County, Va.

The museum is housed in a once all-black school that played a crucial role in the national fight against school segregation. A strike led by Moton High School students over unequal learning conditions in Prince Edward County led to a lawsuit that was among the five cases folded into the larger Brown v. Board of Education case.

“It’s interesting to fast-forward decades to see how protesting has changed,” Brown said. “It’s a different aspect of the same struggle toward equality.”

Students and Black residents in Alexandria did not have the power to challenge the name of the former T.C. Williams High when it opened a generation ago, said Shabazz, who, in addition to teaching, serves as an advisor to the school’s Black Student Union and Minority Student Achievement Network. Students in his classes learn about the history of Williams, who died in 1994.

As an Alexandria high school student in the early to mid-1990s, Hutchings, the superintendent, said the fact that Williams was an ardent segregationist seemed like “an urban legend,” something that most people thought was true but could not confirm.

“When you tweak what people know, it can be powerful,” Shabazz said.

Royster agreed. She is enrolled in one of Shabazz’s classes.

“I didn’t ever think what we learned in class would have a big impact,” she said. “Students are going to [step up now] and have these uncomfortable conversations. There’s so much more to be done.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as With Name Changes, Schools Transform Racial Reckoning Into Real-Life Civics Lessons

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