Political voices in Alexandria are split on the issue of re-naming T.C. Williams High School, after the debate over an arguably racist namesake in an ethnically diverse school has resurfaced in the weeks since the protests against removing a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The prominent civil rights activist Jesse Jackson said in an interview that the name was “humiliating” and implored local legislators to “take action” to address it, while Alexandria School Board members have taken more neutral positions.
Thomas Chambliss Williams, after whom Alexandria’s sole high school is named, was the Superintendent of ACPS from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s. In more recent decades, controversy has surrounded his name because of his reputation for supporting racial segregation in Alexandria schools.
After a mandate from federal courts in 1954 to allow African-Americans to attend formerly all-white schools, Williams, according to Building the Federal Schoolhouse by Douglas Reed, argued that the separation of the races was necessary because of their different learning styles. He claimed that whites learned differently than did African-Americans, and so two distinct learning environments were needed. Williams often cited comparative test score data from African-American students and white students in which whites had consistently higher scores.
While this policy did not ultimately work in stopping the integration process, it did according to Reed, contribute more to the opinion that whites were innately superior students and made integration more difficult.
Jackson said about Williams that “those who fought for segregation should not be honored–they fought the American dream…There’s a principle involved here; this is about overcoming humiliation and barbarism, not just a name or a statue.”
School Board members Veronica Nolan and Cynthia Anderson said in a joint statement on the issue that “ACPS leadership is critically aware that there is a pressing need to find ways to talk about race constructively and respectfully in our schools” and that “such discussions begin with acknowledging our own history.” However, Anderson did say that a possible re-naming of the school could threaten donations to the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria, an organization that gives college scholarships to TC graduates, because many donors who are TC alumni might feel a loss of personal connection to the school.
Member William Campbell said that he was “truly torn on the issue,” but did take a defensive position of the name. “ I wonder just how many names of schools and buildings and other establishments would be changed because the person that it was named after espoused the racial sentiments that the majority of Americans had at the time?”, Campbell said. “I actually think that it’s a poetic dichotomy that TC Williams High School is now perhaps the most diverse high school in the state!”
Member Christopher Lewis did not give his position on the name and its history, but did say that he encouraged a “community dialogue” about such issues.
Members Karen Graf, Ramee Gentry, Ronnie Campbell, and Hal Cardwell did not respond to requests for comments.