RICHMOND, Va. – Sixty-eight-year-old Gladys Williams went to a segregated, black-only school in rural Virginia decades ago because the law required it. Now her grandson is scheduled to attend a middle school named for the state's most prominent champion of school segregation: Harry F. Byrd Sr.
A precocious child with a good grasp of history, the 10-year-old asked her, "Grandma, why do I have to go to a school that was named after a racist who didn't want black people in the building?"
Questions like his and people like Williams are driving a spirited movement to have Byrd's name erased from a suburban Richmond public school because of his staunch segregationist stance.
In an era when historical figures are being re-examined for their racial views, Byrd — Virginia's most towering political icon of the mid-20th century — could be on the fast-track to infamy.
A whole generation of African-American baby boomers in Virginia felt the sting of Byrd's stubborn resistance to school integration in the 1950s and beyond.
Now they are among the parents and community members who want the name Harry Flood Byrd School stripped from a middle school building, letterhead and athletic uniforms.
The school board in Henrico County, which has heard emotional appeals at meetings on the issue, could vote as early as Thursday on whether to strip Byrd's name from the building. School officials have remained publicly neutral on the proposal. They estimate the name change would cost nearly $137,000.
In the South, the soul-searching over historical figures with racist baggage typically has involved the Confederacy. Statues of revered Southern generals such as Robert E. Lee are destined to topple in New Orleans, battle flags have been retired and remnants of the slave-holding South have been scrubbed from Virginia churches and colleges.
Byrd, however, who died in 1966, represents a much more contemporary figure. From the 1920s through the 1960s, his fingerprints were on virtually all public policy. The Democratic "Byrd Machine," as the era was known, reflected that influence.
But for many, he is best known as the architect of Massive Resistance, Virginia's response to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down racially segregated public schools. Byrd denounced the ruling as an "unwarranted usurpation of power."
Because of Massive Resistance, white schools that faced the prospect of integration were closed, and black-only schools were woefully underfunded.
Byrd insisted that Virginia's defiance of school desegregation helped avert racial violence. He offered no apologies for his actions, and said Massive Resistance had to be viewed "in the context of the times."
Today's leaders of the movement to erase the Byrd name from the school building include high school senior Jordan Chapman, 17, who did not attend Byrd Middle. She said she learned about Byrd's legacy last year.
"This guy who wanted to keep schools segregated has a school that's named after him?" Chapman, asked in an interview in a restaurant before speaking at a meeting. "So, I was like, that seems kind of odd. This is something that's happening and I possibly can change it if I take the initiative."
Chapman has collected hundreds of signatures on petitions in support of a name change, and has teamed up with Byrd Middle parents who are also seeking to have the name removed.
Chapman has heard all the arguments. Some say she's trying to erase Virginia history. They say the change would cost too much.
"When you take away the money thing, take the heritage thing out of this, a school shouldn't be named after somebody who stood in the way of education," Chapman said. "That's it. Bottom line."
At recent public meetings, speakers overwhelmingly favored stripping Byrd's name from the school.
Andy Washington, a teacher in King William County, dissented, arguing it would be a first step in a politically correct campaign to erase historical figures who simply reflected their times.
"Let me tell you, if they change the name Harry Byrd, they're going to go after somebody else," Washington, 65, said. "That name on that building is not preventing those children from getting any kind of education."
Name-change activists haven't proposed a new name for the school. Early contenders include Virginia civil rights pioneer Oliver Hill or Barbara Johns.
At the age of 16, Johns led a walk-out to protest shoddy conditions at black-only schools in Prince Edward County.
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