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Alexandria City schools will rename T.C. Williams High, of ‘Remember the Titans’ fame

Students draped sheets over the T.C. Williams High School sign this summer to protest the name, which honors a segregationist former superintendent. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The Alexandria City School Board voted unanimously to rename T.C. Williams High School on Monday night, ending months of heated debate over whether the city’s flagship school — made famous by the movie “Remember the Titans” — should bear the name of a racist former superintendent who fiercely resisted integration.

The board also voted to rename Matthew Maury Elementary School, whose namesake, an accomplished oceanographer, fought for the Confederacy. The vote was unanimous, and almost every board member took a few minutes before the vote to comment on the significance of the moment.

“It was not easy, but we’re here,” said board member Heather Thornton, who is Black. “I’m very, very happy to be part of this history — of Alexandria City Public Schools history.”

History meets mythology: Debate stirs over push to rename T.C. Williams High School, of ‘Remember the Titans’ fame

Per the board’s direction, Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. will present options for new names in the spring. Hutchings, who is Black and a graduate of T.C. Williams, Alexandria’s only public high school, wrote in a recent op-ed for Tes magazine that the name “T.C. Williams” made him feel uneasy walking the hallways as a teenager.

On Monday, Hutchings wore a special blue T-shirt bearing the words “Excellence, Equity, Engagement, Empowerment” to mark the evening. After the vote, he called it the best day ever.

“This is a historic moment for everybody,” he said. “For many years, people have been trying to change the name of T.C. Williams, and they really have not been successful.”

Thomas Chambliss Williams, who served as superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools from the 1930s to the 1960s, took a dim view of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which mandated desegregated public schooling nationwide. He fought integration at every step thereafter, arguing that Black and White students learn differently, and even fired a Black cafeteria worker after she joined an NAACP lawsuit compelling his school system to end segregation.

Matthew Fontaine Maury, known as the “father of modern oceanography,” declined a commission in the U.S. Navy and joined the Confederacy shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War. After the war ended, he headed to Mexico, where he tried to establish a “New Virginia Colony” that would have re-created a version of the South’s plantation slavery and society.

The high school has borne T.C. Williams’s name since the 1960s; the elementary school has borne Maury’s name since the 1920s.

“They were selected not because of the accomplishments of these individuals, but they were declarations of our community’s values in 1929 and in 1962,” said board member Michelle Rief. “One of those values was that Black and White children learn differently and that was wrong.”

Monday’s vote came as a direct response to two community petitions filed with school officials shortly after nationwide protests erupted over the death of George Floyd, and systemic racism in America more broadly. Those petitions spurred months of heated debate in the Northern Virginia school system of 16,000.

Alexandria turns controversy into opportunity by teaching students the racist history behind school names

Some in favor of keeping the name argued that, because of the “Titans” movie — which celebrates the perfect 1971 season of an integrated football team at the high school, led by a Black coach — the name of the high school has become a byword for Black achievement. Others insisted that changing the names amounted to a bad-faith attempt to erase history.

But their opponents — many of them people of color, and many of them in their teens — said that it was morally wrong to honor people who held racist beliefs, calling the names an insult to Alexandria’s present-day, diverse student body.

At one point, students at the high school draped a sheet over the school sign in protest. On Monday, the superintendent and the board thanked young Alexandrians for their activism.

Still, the controversy stretches back much further than this summer. As school officials noted repeatedly on Monday night, people in Alexandria — most often people of color — have sought to change the name of T.C. Williams for decades. The city saw unsuccessful pushes in 1998 and in the early 2000s.

Board member Jacinta Greene said she cast her vote Monday on behalf of everyone who tried and failed to alter the name and for students of color who suffered through unequal education in Alexandria.

“We need to remember those people who had to endure that pain,” she said.