For students and graduates of the Alexandria high school, the film is secondary. T.C. Williams means the place where they studied, often got too little sleep and sometimes forged lifelong friendships. Some alumni remember integrating the school when it opened in 1965. An even smaller number boast of playing on the 1971 team.
But until recently, few thought much about the school’s namesake: Thomas Chambliss Williams, who served as superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools in Northern Virginia from the 1930s to the 1960s. Williams, a racist, resisted integration, argued Black and White students learn differently and fired a Black cafeteria worker when she joined an NAACP lawsuit compelling Alexandria to end segregation.
Now, though, Thomas Chambliss is all anyone is talking about.
“Having to go to a school named for someone who doesn’t see you as human is unbearable,” said Josefina Owusu, a 17-year-old African American senior at the high school. “It’s essential to change the name.”
She is among a large and vocal group of students, parents and alumni who are petitioning the school board to re-christen T.C., as it is known locally. Efforts like this have started and failed a handful of times over the past three decades, but the most recent push is seeing unprecedented success: Last month, the school board voted to begin a “robust public engagement process to consider” renaming the school.
The possible change comes as school officials throughout the South are facing similar swells of protest from students, alumni and parents. Inspired by the nationwide demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd in police custody, these groups are demanding that schools drop Confederate names and mascots — and are seeing their demands fulfilled, especially in Virginia.
Over the past two months, Prince William County renamed Stonewall Middle School for a local Black couple and Loudoun County High School agreed to drop its mascot the Raiders, named for Confederate Col. John S. Mosby’s troops. Fairfax County’s Robert E. Lee High School now bears the name of the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.
Things are moving slower in Alexandria. As has happened elsewhere, some alumni — often White alumni — are lamenting a lost history. The twist is that some are arguing that lost history is Black history.
Boone, his 1971 team and the film, these alumni insist, long ago transformed the name of a racist superintendent into a byword for Black achievement.
“It’s a very famous school. It’s one of the most famous schools in the country because of that movie,” said Greg Paspatis, who is White and graduated from T.C. in 1978. “If you change the name, there will be confusion, and people will forget what happened there” — referring to the 1971 team’s accomplishments.
Another White alumnus, class of 1974, said he keeps a pennant on his wall that says “T.C. Williams, Football Champions.” The man, who opposes a name change, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said he fears he will be harassed online for sharing his views as a White man.
“There’s so much pride with that team and our school,” he said. “That’s how I associate the name, with that team — not with the man, Thomas Chambliss.”
That argument is not new, said Glenn Hopkins, 54, a longtime African American resident and president of Hopkins House, a learning center for children and families that advocates for social justice. Hopkins helped lead two previous unsuccessful pushes to rename T.C.: one in 1998 and one in the early 2000s.
During the second effort, Hopkins said, he heard many references to the movie. Opponents of the switch — including school officials — argued that keeping the name would help T.C. students get into better colleges, because of the prestige of the movie and Washington’s star power.
“It was a stupid argument then, and it is a stupid argument now,” Hopkins said. “For one thing, the name of the movie is ‘Remember the Titans,’ not ‘T.C. Williams.’ ”
The superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, Gregory C. Hutchings Jr., said he wants to hear from as many people as possible over the coming weeks, including from alumni who oppose the name change. He plans to present the school board with formal recommendations for the renaming process — how it should go, who should be consulted — at the end of August.
As the date of his presentation inches closer, his inbox is filling daily with emails from T.C. graduates, he said. But ultimately, Hutchings is most interested in what current students have to say.
“Let’s focus on generations to come,” he said, “not who used to be there.”
The superintendent, who is Black, said he remembers discussing Thomas Chambliss with his own classmates when he attended T.C. Williams in the 1990s. He and his friends speculated that the man had been a segregationist, but they weren’t sure, and — without access to resources such as Google — many remained convinced Thomas Chambliss’s racism was an urban legend.
If he had really been a racist, Hutchings and his classmates wondered, why would officials have named one of the first integrated schools in Alexandria City for him? Even if it was true, none of Hutchings’s friends would have dared suggest renaming the school, Hutchings said.
“A name change wasn’t something we even thought could be possible in the ’90s,” Hutchings said. “So it’s really exciting to me to look at the courage students have today — it’s refreshing to see our young people be willing to stand up for something.”
Administrative willingness to accept student protest came to a head last week, when a small group of high-schoolers attempted to drape sheets over the sign outside the school reading “T.C. Williams.” This technically counts as vandalism and violates school rules, according to Hutchings.
School officials on the scene asked the students to stop, according to high-schoolers who participated, and suggested they pose for photos with the sheet instead. The students ignored the advice and draped the sheet over the sign anyway. Administrators did not remove it, and the students plan to come back every couple of days to ensure it stays up.
“We will keep this up until the school board eventually says they will change the name,” said Sarah Devendorf, a 17-year-old senior, who is White.
Asked about the incident, Hutchings said school officials want to teach the students how to exercise their freedom of speech, protest peacefully and “make the right choices” — while also respecting school property. Asked whether Alexandria City schools will punish the teenagers who covered the sign, Hutchings said no. Officials will instead “continue to talk to our students,” he said.
Anais Joubert, a 14-year-old freshman and one of the students who attended the covering last week, said she is frustrated by this administrative resistance. She said she didn’t understand how hanging a sheet over a sign counts as vandalism and that the whole episode made her feel like Alexandria City Public Schools “doesn’t have my back.”
Joubert, who is half-Asian and half-South African, is equally irritated with alumni who tout the accomplishments of the 1971 team, and the national acclaim garnered via the film, as a reason to retain Thomas Chambliss’s name.
“Yeah, sure, it was a big thing, there was a movie, but the movie is really old now, and our generation doesn’t really care about the movie,” she said. “It’s a serious disservice to the actual students now, to privilege your nostalgia.”
Owusu said the name causes psychological and mental harm to “Black and Brown students.” She noted that Black and Hispanic students make up a majority of the student body; White students composed 24 percent of T.C.’s 2019-2020 enrollment.
“For students of color, to chant his name at pep rallies or on the field is to embrace a racist culture that stems from the oppression of African Americans for more than 400 years,” she said.
Ever since Owusu learned who Thomas Chambliss was, she has refused to chant “T.C.” at sporting events, yelling “Go Titans!” instead.
Some members of the 1971 team agree with her.
Collin Gene “Patches” Arrington, who played as a running back in 1971, said he’d love to see the school renamed for Coach Boone, as has been proposed, or for both Boone and his White assistant coach, Bill Yoast. Boone died in December at age 84; Yoast died earlier that year at 94.
Arrington, 65, said he had no idea who Thomas Chambliss was until about a week ago, when a group of his 1971 teammates began discussing the push to rename the school. Someone brought up the former superintendent’s racism, and Arrington, who is Black, was horrified.
In all the years he went to the high school — and through all the years following, when Arrington, basking in the glory of 1971, felt proud to say he graduated from T.C. Williams — he never thought to ask who the man was.
When he learned, Arrington immediately thought back to his family history, especially the racism and deprivation his grandfather faced as a sharecropper: “Just one step removed from slavery.” He quickly decided the old name had to go.
Re-christening the high school for Boone, Arrington feels, would do more real honor to the 1971 team than the movie ever did or could.
“It would mean so much to me, every time I go there,” he said, “if I could drive by and see his name.”