Hanover County NAACP files federal lawsuit over schools’ Confederate names

By George Copeland and Jeremy M. Lazarus | 8/23/2019, 6 a.m.
In a novel approach, the Hanover County Branch NAACP is alleging that the county and its School Board are violating ...

In a novel approach, the Hanover County Branch NAACP is alleging that the county and its School Board are violating the constitutional rights of African-American residents by having schools named for military and political leaders of the slavery-defending Confederate States.

Fed up after two years of futile lobbying for name changes, the branch filed suit in federal court in Richmond on Aug. 16 alleging that African-American students are being compelled to embrace Confederate imagery and the names of military and political leaders who sought to keep them enslaved.

The suit asks the court to find that the county is violating the First Amendment through such compulsion and to order that the names of Lee-Davis High and Stonewall Jackson Middle schools be changed. Lee-Davis is named for Confederate commander Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, while Stonewall Jackson is named for anther top Confederate military figure.

Neither the county nor its school system have commented publicly.

The suit appears to be among the first to use a constitutional approach to attack Confederate imagery and shrines that continues to litter public property in Virginia and other states.

On Monday, Norfolk adopted a similar approach in filing its own federal lawsuit challenging state laws that bar it from removing or altering a Conferate monument that it owns.

The city claimed in its suit that the protection laws for Confederate icons “deprives (Norfolk) of the right to free speech.” Such laws effectively take “away the city’s right to not present a message about the War Between the States in the manner that is embodied by the monument.”


Mr. Barnette

“The NAACP wants to create an inclusive school community that welcomes all children in Hanover County to access equal education opportunities,” according to a statement from the Hanover NAACP that is led by Robert N. Barnette Jr., the new state NAACP president, and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs that filed the suit on the branch’s behalf.

But that is impossible while the names of those schools remain in place, according to the suit. African-American students at the two schools are “compelled” to wear uniforms, jerseys and cheerleading outfits with Confederate imagery and the names of leaders dedicated to defending the enslavement of their ancestors.

This “condition of participation” extends to the official nicknames for Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson students and athletes — “Confederates” and “Rebels” — respectively, that are a constant presence at sporting events and other activities. Those students who refuse to use the nicknames are unable to participate in such extracurricular activities, the suit alleges.

The lawsuit also alleges that Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson create an educational setting of active and passive discrimination and dehumanization based on their links to the Confederacy. According to the suit, the situation is only made worse by incidents of racist rhetoric and behavior from white faculty and white students towards African-Americans.

These situations and others, the suit contends, are a violation of equal protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

The suit also alleges that the use of those names and all that comes with them violates the federal Equal Education Opportunities Act by maintaining the vestiges of a dual and segregated school system.

“African-American students at Lee-Davis HS and Stonewall Jackson MS confront everyday messages from the school that they are less worthy than their white counterparts,” the lawsuit reads. “These messages are harmful and cause long-lasting injury.”

The use of the Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson names has been a constant reminder of Hanover’s ugly history with race, the suit alleges.

Lee-Davis High School was established in 1958, during the time of “Massive Resistance,” a statewide strategy aimed at preventing court-ordered desegregation of public schools. Stonewall Jackson was established as the name for a new middle school in 1969, six months after Hanover County’s plan to desegregate its schools finally won federal court approval after two earlier plans were rejected.

Currently, African-Americans make up less than 10 percent of the student bodies at each of the schools.

This is not the first time Hanover County officials have been called on to rename the schools. In 2017, Hanover School Board officials rejected the idea after a poll of residents showed 70 percent of residents wanted the names to remain.

Hanover County’s Board of Supervisors in June also removed Marla Coleman from the appointed school board after Ms. Coleman, the lone person of color on the board, voted for the name change.

Previous renamings in the Greater Richmond region have been far less difficult. For example, the Richmond School Board renamed J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School to Barack Obama Elementary last year with little controversy. J.E.B. Stuart was a Confederate cavalry leader.

Mr. Barnette hopes the county will consider avoiding expensive litigation to defend the names.

“It’s going to cost taxpayers money that should go into the schools,” Mr. Barnette said. “We didn’t want to go to court, but we see no other option at this time. If the School Board wants to resolve this issue, we’re open and ready to do that.”