Hanover NAACP lawsuit to change names of Confederate schools continues in federal court

George Copeland Jr. | 1/17/2020, 6 a.m.
A federal lawsuit launched by the Hanover County Branch NAACP against the Hanover County School Board to force the board ...
Senior U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne

A federal lawsuit launched by the Hanover County Branch NAACP against the Hanover County School Board to force the board to eliminate the Confederate names of two schools is still alive following a hearing Tuesday afternoon in a Richmond federal court.

U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne made no judgement on the board’s motion to dismiss the suit, which seeks the renaming of Hanover County’s Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School.

Instead, Judge Payne called for more briefs on issues in the case and scheduled dates throughout the month of February for submissions from both parties that would address concerns about the case.

The first brief, which the branch must submit by Feb. 3, would focus on issues the board has raised, including a claim that the NAACP waited too long to challenge the names. Virginia has a two-year statute of limitations, and the Hanover School Board alleges that the names have been in place far longer and are no longer subject to legal challenge.

“When confronted with a question,” Judge Payne said, “it’s best to reflect upon it.”

Still, Judge Payne appeared critical of the lawsuit throughout the hearing. He cited a lack of evidence of enforced speech and expressed concern about a lack of evidence showing use of the school names has led to African-American students being treated differently from white students.

He plans to hold a new hearing on the board’s request to dismiss the lawsuit on March 9.

Along with new arguments, attorneys for the NAACP hope to present testimony from African-American students and parents about the negative impact the Confederate school names have had on their educational experience.

The NAACP must gain a favorable ruling from Judge Payne to proceed to the final step — a trial set for May 11.

Both sides left the hearing without issuing any comment.

Tuesday’s hearing was to consider briefs Judge Payne previously requested. He had directed at- torneys for the NAACP to provide past cases that would support their arguments that the Confederate school names violate the constitutional rights of students or to show how the suit represents “the extension of existing legal principles.”

The Hanover NAACP filed the suit in August after unsuccessfully lobbying the Hanover School Board to eliminate the Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson names that pay tribute to defenders of slavery and supporters of white supremacy.

In their suit and during the hearing, the NAACP argued the school names represented vestiges of the racism in Hanover County, which was one of the last counties in Virginia to desegregate its schools.

Attorneys for the civil rights group have argued from the start that the toxic racist influence continues to this day through the use of Confederate names and that the names represent compelled government speech that violates African-American students’rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First and 14th amendments.

Staff writer Jeremy M. Lazarus contributed to this report.