The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Virginia community steeped in Civil War lore grapples with a desire for change

Nannie R. Davis, 68, a graduate of Lee-Davis High School, is part of an effort to change the name of the school, which honors Confederate figures. Among the community in Mechanicsville, opponents of the renaming effort regard it as an attempt to rewrite history — one in which they take pride.
Nannie R. Davis, 68, a graduate of Lee-Davis High School, is part of an effort to change the name of the school, which honors Confederate figures. Among the community in Mechanicsville, opponents of the renaming effort regard it as an attempt to rewrite history — one in which they take pride. (Julia Rendleman/For The Washington Post)

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — In more than 50 years, Nannie R. Davis has hardly worn her high school class ring. She bought it unaware that engraved into the metal would be the images of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general, and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, flanked by the Confederate flag.

It was another reminder she was unwelcome, an embodiment of the two years she spent at Lee-Davis High School, where white students spewed racial epithets and where she sat, humiliated, at pep rallies as classmates clapped to a song Confederate soldiers marched to: “Dixie.”

She was among the first students to integrate the high school in this Richmond suburb, where ties to the Civil War run deep.

“You had to have a mind of steel,” she said. “You couldn’t react to every name call, every slight. You just have to be nonviolent, nonconfrontational in hopes that things would be better. That’s what you do. But it takes a toll.”

The school name always made her uneasy. So when she learned Lee-Davis was the latest Southern school named for Confederate figures to become the subject of a renaming effort, Davis volunteered her voice.

She offered stirring testimony to the school board. “Sometimes, people are afraid to challenge,” the 68-year-old said. “I’ve never been afraid to challenge. I just didn’t know how.”

The dividing lines in the battle over Lee-Davis High School, home of the Confederates, and nearby Stonewall Jackson Middle School, home of the Rebels, are familiar.

Driven by an outspoken contingent of alumni and community members, proponents who want the names and mascots changed say they ennoble men who fought to preserve slavery and represent a deeper, more painful racial history at the schools. Opponents of the effort to change the names regard it as a foolhardy attempt to rewrite history.

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But few communities swept into the reckoning over Confederate imagery in the public sphere remain as steeped in the legacy of the Civil War as Mechanicsville.

Historic markers dot the community. A park commemorating a Civil War battlefield is a short drive from the schools. Revelers at the annual Christmas parade wave Confederate flags. Students refer to a corner of the high school parking lot where big trucks with Confederate emblems line up as “redneck row.”

And while advocates who succeeded in renaming schools elsewhere found a groundswell of local support, many alumni and residents in Mechanicsville appear resistant to change. An online petition to keep the names and mascots of the high school and middle school has amassed more than three times as many signatures as one seeking to remove them.

“Tradition & Pride,” a mantra on the high school’s website, is “The Lee-Davis Way.”

Alumni take sides

Days after deadly violence flared in Charlottesville last August, with counterprotesters clashing with white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members who descended for a Unite the Right rally, Ryan Leach posted to Facebook.

“Please let me know if any LDHS alumni would be interested in a local, state or national campaign to FINALLY change the name and mascot of Lee-Davis High School,” he wrote.

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In the 700-word missive, the 2010 graduate recalled the discomfort of hearing cheerleaders chant “Go, Confederates” during football games, sometimes against predominantly black teams. At school, students sported shirts with the Confederate flag, and others balked at learning that the Civil War was fought over slavery, he said.

Hundreds of people shared the post and commented on it, some vehemently critical.

“The problem is people like you are being brainwashed by media and our government to believe what they want you to believe,” one Facebook user wrote.

“You can’t erase history. And that is why everything is named after history,” another wrote. “None of the African American people that I am friends with that attended there were offended of the mascot.”

Other alumni who attended Lee-Davis as far back as the 1960s were supportive.

“This is something that’s been ignored and pushed away,” Leach said.

Some students struggled privately when they attended the school. Avi Hopkins, a decorated running back and wrestler at Lee-Davis in the early 1990s, was troubled by the name emblazoned on his school uniform, by playing under the banner of men who were “oppressors of my ancestors.”

“This idea that for every touchdown, every yard gained, for every great play — that name, Confederates, is going to be lifted up in some way,” Hopkins said. “This issue was one that was a burning one, especially for me.”

Black students offended by the school name discussed their concerns with each other, he said. But, mostly, the teenagers felt paralyzed, worried about the consequences of taking action.

“It’s such a delicate point in your life,” Hopkins said. “Looking back on it, I think it would have been a small inconvenience to have stepped forward.”

Mahri Jones didn’t suppress her alarm when she encountered the school name painted on a wall in 1997 after her family moved from Prince William County. It was an introduction, she said, to a high school where daily interactions were informed by race.

Jones, who is white, attended prom with an African American schoolmate. A teacher, she said, phoned her mother to make sure she knew Jones was spending time with a student who was black. Classmates regarded Jones as dramatic for criticizing the name and mascot, she said.

“If you know there is a symbol that is very representative of a pain from our history to a targeted group of people, just out of common respect, why wouldn’t you just take that down?”

'I wasn't wanted there'

On that night in 1963 before six black students integrated Lee-Davis High, Walter Lee realized the magnitude of what he would do. “I prayed,” he said. “It hit me that night. It was a big thing.”

Lee-Davis opened as an all-white high school in Hanover County in 1959, according to a 2008 article in the Herald-Progress newspaper. When it was named a year earlier, a school board member said he proposed the moniker because Davis and Lee were closely tied to Civil War battlegrounds near campus.

Talk of race in schools was rife in the 1950s. The NAACP had, for years, sought equal resources for black students, said John Kneebone, chairman of Virginia Commonwealth University’s history department.

In 1963, the NAACP encouraged black students to apply to white Hanover County schools, according to the Herald-Progress.

It was a Sunday evening when Phylis Archer said NAACP representatives showed up at her home, asking if she would be willing to integrate the school. The high school for black students was 30 miles away, but she could reach Lee-Davis in minutes, which her father favored.

Once there, Archer said she felt isolated. She was the target of spitballs and racial jokes.

“Your high school days are supposed to be some of your best days. . . . I can’t say that,” she said. “I was reminded, every day, I was a black student and I wasn’t wanted there.”

'We started to fight back'

Grayson Jennings sensed public sentiment shift in 2015, after nine parishioners were gunned down in a Charleston, S.C., church, and then again after the deadly rally in Charlottesville. An “anti-Confederate movement” had taken root, he said.

“Our heritage was being destroyed, little by little, taken over by political correctness,” the 66-year-old said. “So, we started to fight back.”

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Jennings belongs to the Virginia Flaggers, which bills itself as a volunteer group proud of its Southern heritage and raises Confederate flags in public places to draw awareness to the Confederacy and to combat the opposition.

Jennings, a 1970 Lee-Davis graduate, called renaming proponents “misled,” adding they act as if Confederates were “solely responsible for slavery in the world.”

“These people that fought and died defending against the Yankee invasion, these were our great-great-grandfathers,” Jennings said. “They fought because their homeland was invaded.”

Other alumni say they have a more sentimental attachment to the name and mascot.

“If the name was to be changed, I would disassociate myself from the high school,” said Marsha Boyce Rider, who began the petition to keep the names. She regards the renaming effort as the handiwork of outsiders who weren’t born in the community.

After the school board announced in January it would gather feedback on the school names and mascots, Rider said she supplied paper surveys to older residents who don’t have Internet access. She collected more than 350 of those surveys, she said, all indicating support for keeping the names.

“They do not want to see history deleted,” Rider said. “It’s kind of a no-brainer.”

Inside the school

Jessica Baskerville, 17, shies away from talking about the African Methodist Episcopal church she attends or other experiences unique to her culture, anxious of how her Lee-Davis peers would perceive her.

Growing up, Baskerville, who is editor in chief of the high school’s newspaper, said students would ask why she and her family didn’t fit the “stereotype” of a black family. She has heard students use racial epithets freely. But students and teachers generally avoid conversations about race, she said.

She senses most of the student body favors keeping the name and mascot. And those who want them changed aren’t vocal, she said.

Robert Barnette, vice president of the Hanover County NAACP, said students are hesitant about voicing an opinion on the attempted name change, fearful of “retaliation within the school or the community.”

“It’s immoral for a black student to have to remember that the name of a school is one that is honored by a Confederate general that enslaved their ancestors,” he said. “It injures black students.”

The school board is using surveys to gauge sentiments about changing the school names and mascots. “We are very mindful of and sensitive to the discussions surrounding this very complex issue,” school board Chairwoman Susan P. Dibble said in a statement. “There are many different perspectives.”

The pace of change is slow in Mechanicsville, said Davis, who graduated from Lee-Davis in 1967. Lee-Davis is 81 percent white and about 10 percent black, according to fall 2016 enrollment numbers from the Virginia Department of Education. Hanover, the county in which Mechanicsville is located, is 87 percent white, according to 2016 Census data.

Proponents of renaming the school aren’t trying to deny history, she said. But they don’t want to memorialize a dark period, either.

“They are failing to realize what it does to African Americans and people who were not part of the Confederacy,” Davis said. “It humiliates us. It makes us feel like we are less than a human being.”