RICHMOND — A local chapter of the NAACP has filed a federal lawsuit against Hanover County and its school board over two schools that commemorate Confederate leaders, making a novel legal argument that says the names should be changed on constitutional grounds.
The suit argues that Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School violate the rights of African American students by forcing them “to champion a legacy of segregation and oppression in order to participate in school activities.”
That violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of being free from “compelled speech” and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law, the suit alleges.
“We believe it’s one of the first times that these well-established legal principles have been used to challenge the issue of Confederate and segregation legacy names in schools,” said Kaitlin Banner, deputy legal director for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which filed the suit on behalf of the Hanover County branch of the NAACP.
The NAACP is asking the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to “eradicate the vestiges of a shameful, racist educational system in Hanover County” by ordering the schools to be renamed.
Tom Harris, a spokesman for Hanover County government, declined to comment on the case. “Hanover County has no comment on pending litigation,” he said.
The move comes at a time when Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy and home to more memorials than any other state, is taking steps to reckon with its past. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) recently pushed to remove Jefferson Davis’s name from a memorial at Fort Monroe, and parts of Jefferson Davis Highway in Northern Virginia are being renamed.
As of 2018, 31 Virginia schools were named for Confederate figures; according to the Hanover lawsuit, 18 of them had been removed by the end of last year.
Hanover school board members voted 5 to 2 last year to keep the Confederate school names after some residents had petitioned for change. Earlier this year, the county board of supervisors declined to reappoint one of the two school board members who voted to change the names.
Hanover is a predominantly white, largely rural county north of Richmond where the Sons of Confederate Veterans are active and stage a booth at the annual Hanover Tomato Festival. Last month, several members of the Ku Klux Klan held a small rally outside the Hanover Courthouse, drawing protest from the NAACP and other residents.
Lee-Davis High School opened in 1959, a time when several Virginia localities were practicing “massive resistance” against the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate schools. Hanover had provided no high school education to blacks before 1950, the suit says.
Named after General Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the school was white-only until 1963 and didn’t fully integrate until 1969. Hanover was one of the last counties in the state to do so.
Stonewall Jackson, which was then a junior high school, was named after the Confederate general in 1968 as integration was underway.
“When they named those schools, they … wanted to make sure that African Americans were not welcome,” said Robert Barnette, president of the Hanover NAACP.
He said the NAACP asked the county to change the names in 1970, to no avail. The group petitioned the school board again in 2017, three months after white supremacists conducted a violent rally in Charlottesville around a statue of Lee.
The county responded by conducting a survey that showed the overwhelming majority of residents believed the names should stay.
“We felt like they made their decision and they’re just not going to take us seriously,” Barnette said. “We wanted to make sure we had exhausted all options before we went the legal route.”
He said his two daughters attended both schools, and one was a cheerleader. “It was a learning experience, and so we dug into how and why these schools got their names,” he said.
More than 1,500 students attend Lee-Davis and more than 1,000 attend Stonewall Jackson; fewer than 10 percent are African American. The mascot for the high school is the “Confederates,” while the middle schoolers are the “Rebels.” Those names are on banners and signs throughout the schools and at sporting events, along with images of the Confederate leaders.
Several members of the NAACP attended the schools and now are seeking alternatives for their children. One member asked the school board for a variance to allow their child to go somewhere other than Stonewall Jackson and was denied. The member home-schooled the child “to avoid a hostile and discriminatory education environment,” according to the lawsuit.
Other members’ children are refraining from participating in sports or other school activities “because they do not want to endorse the school’s pro-Confederacy name,” the lawsuit said. That lack of participation, it said, could affect the students’ ability to get into college.
“Student members who wish to participate in extracurricular activities disagree with the values of slavery and racism associated with the Confederacy and do not wish to endorse those values,” the lawsuit said.
The lawyers argue that this violates the First Amendment right “not to express a view with which a person disagrees.” They also argue that it violates the 14th Amendment prohibition against “states or state actors” discriminating on the basis of race or national origin.