A Virginia school board is studying whether to rename a middle school that is named after one of the architects of Massive Resistance, a set of policies that aggressively pushed back against court-ordered integration of public schools in the 1950s and 1960s.
Parents and students supporting the name change at Harry F. Byrd Middle School in Henrico County, just outside Richmond, are confounded that their school could be named for a man who fought to keep black and white students from attending school together. The school’s population is now about evenly split between white students and minorities; about 20 percent of its students are black.
“This is a man who stood in the way of education, and this is a building dedicated to education,” said Jordan Chapman, a graduate of the middle school and a Hermitage High senior who started the name-change campaign . An online petition has drawn hundreds of supporters.
The effort to rename the school comes amid a broad effort by students — particularly in colleges and universities — to scrub the names of historical figures they view as racist from the marquees and titles of buildings and stadiums. The case in Henrico County bears striking similarities to one just three hours north at the University of Maryland. The school’s board of regents recently voted to strip a former university president’s name from the stadium because of his segregationist views in the 1950s, when he wanted to bar black students from attending the school. His name, coincidentally, also was Harry Byrd. The two are not related.
In Henrico County, the five-member school board on Thursday directed Superintendent Patrick C. Kinlaw to study the financial impact of changing the name, asking him to estimate the costs of replacing uniforms and the outdoor marquee and repainting the walls and gym floors. The move came after several people spoke about the issue, nearly all of whom supported the name change. They included a white student who attended the middle school and who said her best friend was black. If Byrd had his way, she said, the two never would have been friends.
“Our role is to be very thoughtful and deliberative as we go forward with an issue. This is a very important issue,” Lisa Marshall, the board member who represents the middle school, said when she made the request of the superintendent.
One resident, Dennis Turkal, spoke in support of keeping the name, saying he did not see defense of segregation as Byrd’s defining legacy.
“He served the state for 49 years, in the state Senate, as governor,” Turkal said. “He did a lot for this state.”
As a state senator and governor, Byrd was known for building roads, modernizing Virginia and fiscal conservatism. And even after he was elected to the U.S. Senate, he maintained his influence over state politics through the Byrd organization, a network he carefully built while working in state politics.
After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, he signed on to the Southern Manifesto to oppose the court’s decision. He later spearheaded the Massive Resistance movement, an umbrella term that included policies and legal maneuvering to prevent black children from entering white schools. In Virginia, it led to the closure of schools and the creation of Pupil Placement Boards, a means to delay and intimidate black students from transferring to white schools, said historian John Kneebone, an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Kneebone said Henrico participated in many of these delay tactics. In the 1950s and 1960s, the county was home to growing suburbs of white residents who left Richmond to seek more racially homogenous communities — and schools, Kneebone said.
Shortly before his retirement from the Senate in 1965, Byrd spoke in opposition to the Voting Rights Act. He died a year later. His son, Harry Byrd Jr., was appointed to his seat and served several terms.
It was against this backdrop that the Henrico County School Board in 1966 decided to name a school after the elder Byrd, one of the state’s most revered statesmen. The board initially was to name a new high school after him, but in 1968 decided instead to name the middle school for him. The middle school opened in 1971.
Andy Jenks, a spokesman for the school district, said he looked at the minutes from the time of the board’s decision to name the school, but they revealed little about why Byrd was chosen.
Melissa McKenney, whose daughter attends Byrd Middle School, acknowledged that there are other pieces to his legacy and that fourth-graders in Virginia learn about all of them, including his role in expanding the state road system and his pay-as-you-go funding system. But the name is antithetical to the environment of inclusiveness parents are trying to promote, she said, with programs to welcome immigrant families and to ensure special-needs children can participate in activities.
When school board members chose the name nearly 60 years ago, “it’s hard to say what they were honoring,” she said. “But they named an educational institution after a man who fought to keep children who were not white out of that school.”