RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A Virginia school division decided Thursday to remove a prominent segregationist’s name from a school, saying students should not be educated in a building named after a man who sought to shutter schools rather than integrate them.
The Henrico County school board voted 5-0 to strip Harry F. Byrd’s name from the suburban Richmond school following a petition drive and overwhelming public condemnation of the school’s name.
While most board members said Byrd had a positive influence in Virginia, they said they couldn’t overlook his stubborn resistance to racial integration. Many also said Byrd had never apologized for his role in the state’s so-called Massive Resistance to school integration.
Board member Beverly L. Cooke said that although Byrd reflected his times, “A public school should not be named after him.”
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The name change came after a spirited, months-long effort by a coalition of Byrd Middle School parents and community members. Some speakers at public meetings included African-Americans who were victims of Byrd’s segregationist policies.
The board’s decision was met with applause and hugs by proponents of the name change.
“I’m so proud and excited,” said an elated Jordan Chapman, a 17-year-old senior who was among the leaders of the movement. “It definitely restores my faith in government.”
The board said it would consider a new name for the school over the next 30 days, based on public input. Many have recommended the names of Virginia civil rights leaders.
Byrd was a governor, U.S. senator and powerful political force in 20th century Virginia. He also is credited as the architect of the state’s official policy to keep public schools separated by race after U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down racially segregated schools.
Byrd had his defenders at heavily attended public meetings. They said he was a positive force for Virginia in many other ways, and that removing his name amounts to erasing history.
But for school board members, the school’s link to Byrd could not stand.
Board member Roscoe D. Cooper III said that, “… we cannot change history, but we can revisit it.” He called the name change a “breath of fresh air.”
Many who were involved in the name-change movement said they had been unaware of Byrd’s hand in Massive Resistance. They said the debate informed a whole new generation on a dark chapter of Virginia history.
In the South and elsewhere, once revered historic figures and symbols are being reconsidered over racial views now viewed as reprehensible. Statues celebrating the Confederacy are destined to come down in New Orleans and Confederate battle flags have been stripped from public places and license plates.
Byrd, who died in 1966, represents a much more contemporary figure. From the 1920s through the 1960s, his influence was apparent in virtually all public policy. The Democrat’s dominance was known simply as the “Byrd Machine.”
Byrd Middle School dates to 1971. Residents said the name change proposal has come up before but never gathered sufficient steam to reach the school board.
Follow Steve Szkotak at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/steve-szkotak.