The order came from the U.S. Supreme Court on May 17, 1954: Desegregate public schools.

Starting the next day, and for the next five years, T.C. Williams, the superintendent of Alexandria city schools, fought that order. His efforts included firing a black school cafeteria worker in 1958 because her children were seeking admission to the city's all-white schools.

Today, Alexandria's lone high school, which opened in 1965 and has an enrollment that is 47 percent black, bears Williams's name. It is an irony that some people mention quietly but that no one has made a fuss over, said Principal John Porter.

For years, the names of schools have garnered little attention or interest. But recently, debates have erupted in communities across the country over which school sobriquets are appropriate, and the issue is often related to race.

In Riverside, Calif., some white parents unsuccessfully opposed naming a new high school after Martin Luther King Jr., saying that college admissions officers might wrongly assume the school was majority-black.

A Hispanic teacher in Prince William County is fighting for the second time to get one of the system's 66 schools named for a Hispanic American.

And a 1992 New Orleans school policy decreed that any schools in the majority-black district that were named for former slave owners or others who did not respect equal opportunity for all would be renamed. The system has since changed the names of two dozen schools, including one named for George Washington, who owned slaves.

If such a policy were applied to public secondary schools in Virginia, at least 51 of them, including T.C. Williams High School, would receive a new appellation, based upon a review of a list of school names provided by the state Department of Education. Only a small number of Maryland's schools fall in the same category. Across the Old Dominion, the topic is hot in some districts and a non-issue in others.

"In the 23 years I've been here, I haven't heard one complaint," said William Sharbaugh, principal of Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, which is named for George Washington and Robert E. Lee.

But in Petersburg, where the student body is 98 percent black and schools are named for Civil War generals A.P. Hill, J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee, Superintendent Wallace Saval said residents questioned why no school was named for an African American.

As a result, an elementary school named after a local white businessman was renamed a year ago for Vernon Johns, a black preacher who once lived in Petersburg.

No one in Hampton's majority-black school system cared that the middle school was named for Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. But calling the school's teams the Jefferson Davis Rebels proved to be too much. So six years ago, the Rebels became the Bulldogs.

In Prince William County, Superintendent Edward L. Kelly said he has heard occasional remarks about the district's two schools named for Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, a Confederate general. Prince William NAACP President Eddie Stallworth said the names do bother "quite a few" of the county's African Americans, and he joked that "it's time to stop stonewalling everything."

Steve Constantino, the principal of Stonewall Jackson High, said the name should not offend anyone.

"My understanding of the Civil War -- and I'm not a historian -- was that it was about states' rights and state issues," he said. "I know that slavery certainly was an issue, but I'm not so certain that was the primary focus." To equate Stonewall Jackson, the high school, with the issues driving the Civil War makes little sense, he said.

Constantino is far from alone in that view. Numerous historians argue that flaws of character do not erase someone's achievements and should not disqualify them from being memorialized.

"The idea is to learn from history, not to obliterate those passages we don't like," said James I. Robertson Jr., a Civil War historian at Virginia Tech. "So if we're going to start changing names, I guess the first name we would change is the name of Washington, D.C."

Colonial figures James Madison and George Mason both opposed slavery but owned slaves.

Historian Robert A. Rutland, formerly with the University of Virginia, said they should not be judged for the contradiction. "That's hypocrisy to us," he said. "To them it wasn't. It was reality."

That is not the view of Salim Khalfani, spokesman for the Virginia NAACP. Khalfani said excuses such as the culture of the time, or the theory that the Civil War was more about states' rights than slavery, are old and tired. Names do send a message, he said.

"If we really want to set an example of inclusion, we need to visit this issue," he said.

He cited a recent decision by the Richmond City Council. Two Richmond bridges undergoing renovation will lose their Confederate names -- Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart -- and receive names yet to be determined by the city's Black History Museum and Cultural Center.

In Rockingham County, a high school bears the name of Confederate soldier Turner Ashby, who was known as the Black Knight. Ashby wore black to mourn the death of his soldier-brother, and he rode a white horse in battle. Thus, the school colors at Ashby High are black and white, and the school seal is the Ashby family's coat of arms. "I don't think the school was named Turner Ashby because of any particular position that the community took with regard to which side Turner Ashby was on," said the school's principal, Delmer Botkin. "I think it's just because he's a historical figure."

In Alexandria, the same reasoning can be used in defense of T.C. Williams High School, but J. Glenn Hopkins is not convinced by it. Hopkins, who is African American, is executive director of Hopkins House, an Alexandria agency for children and families.

The high school's name, he said, should be changed.

"We use schools much in the way we use monuments -- to be educational and commemorative of important historical events," he said. "And it just seems to me that to name a school after a man who fired the mom of a child seeking an equal education is outrageous." Metro Resource Director Margot Williams contributed to this report. CAPTION: VIRGINIA SCHOOL NAMES

At least 51 Virginia public schools would have to be renamed if the state adopted the New Orleans school district's ban on names of people who owned slaves or who supported slavery or racial segregation. Here are the names involved in Virginia, and the number of schools named for them. Name

Who were they?

No. of schools Stonewall Jackson

Confederate general

6 Thomas Jefferson

Third U.S. president

6 Patrick Henry

Revolutionary War statesman

6 Robert E. Lee

Confederate general

l5 J.E.B. Stuart

Confederate genera

l4 George Mason

Author of Virginia constitution

4 James Madison

Fourth U.S. president

3 Washington-Lee

3 George Washington

First U.S. president

2 James Monroe

Fifth U.S. president

2 John Singleton Mosby Confederate ranger

2 William Byrd

Colonial plantation owner

2 Turner Ashby

Confederate calvaryman

1 Ashby-Lee

1 Jefferson Davis

Confederate president

1 Lee-Davis

1 A.P. Hill

Confederate general

1 T.C. Williams

Virginia school superintendent

1 SOURCES: Virginia Department of Education, "Who Was Who in the Civil War" CAPTION: Jefferson CAPTION: Lee CAPTION: Madison CAPTION: Jackson CAPTION: Stuart CAPTION: Mason CAPTION: T.C. Williams High in Alexandria is named after a desegregation foe.