An Obscure Name Prompts a Familiar Debate

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 4, 2007

When it came to the recent naming of a new middle school in the Gainesville area, parents and school officials cooked up a list with all the usual suspects: John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln and so on. One deceased historical figure -- not as well-known but certainly less of a cliche for a school name -- emerged: Samuel L. Gravely, the Navy's first African American admiral and a former Prince William resident.

But among the voting members of the county's naming committee for the new middle school, the decision was not unanimous. Seven members wanted Gravely, and six wanted a more basic and perhaps practical name -- Gainesville Middle School -- to highlight the school's location.

Ultimately, a deal was brokered by the school board. The new middle school, set to open in September, will be named Gainesville Middle School. Then, after waiving a regulation that another naming committee be established, the board voted to name an elementary school in Haymarket set to open in fall 2008 after Gravely.

Seemingly an innocuous undertaking, the naming of a school can be politically sensitive, often pitting people's practical tendencies against their more creative leanings. Three years ago, an uproar ensued over the naming of Battlefield High School in Haymarket because several parents believed the name carried violent connotations, despite others who believed it recognized the area's Civil War heritage.

"People get very emotional and attached to certain names," said school board member Milton C. Johns (Brentsville), whose district includes the site of the new middle school.

Johns said that he had received numerous e-mails from people complaining that a "Gravely Middle School" would carry too much of a somber or dark connotation because of the definition of the word gravely.

"They said that naming it would cast a negative influence," he said. "Frankly, I strongly disagree with that and in the end, I couldn't imagine not naming a school for him. He was the first African American admiral and he had ties to this community."

In Prince William, naming a school depends on several criteria that are meant to serve as strict but flexible guidelines. The school can be named after the site's geography or historical significance, or a deceased person who has made local, state, or "national service contributions," according to Alison Nourse-Miller, an area associate superintendent for the school system.

Gravely is hardly the only non-famous name for a school in Prince William. It's rare when a county school is named after a prominent historical figure -- such as Stonewall Jackson or Rosa Parks, whose names adorn the high school near Manassas and the new elementary school in Woodbridge, respectively. Most Prince William schools are named for their geographical location or a major local figure.

J.W. Alvey Elementary School in Haymarket, for instance, was named after a school board member who served from 1944 to 1957. Ellis Elementary School near Manassas was named after Suella Gilbert Ellis, the first black administrator in the school system.

But sometimes naming committees fear offending someone by suggesting a name that could be seen as divisive. So, school names are created "out of whole cloth," said Johns, such as Bristow Run and Cedar Point elementary schools -- named after fictional locations. "The one thing that I think this school board is not going to do, in the interest of political correctness, is to name a school for a non-existent geographical feature."

When school officials realized that the naming committee for the middle school in Gainesville was split over whether to use Gravely or Gainesville, they discovered that the admiral felt strongly about elementary education and, coincidentally, lived near the site of the new elementary school.

"He was very fond of speaking with school kids in the elementary grades and that's what the family was preferring," said Donald P. Richardson (Gainesville), whose district includes the school. "We found out both could be acceptable and said, 'Let's do something unusual. Let's accept both.' "

The name of the new school honoring the late admiral? Maybe its only problem has less to do with the definition of "gravely," than with the school's official name: the Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. Elementary School.

No doubt, for the future students, a mouthful.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company