Hearing Jan. 14 on Hanover NAACP suit to rename Confederate schools
George Copeland Jr. | 1/2/2020, 6 a.m.
The fate of a federal lawsuit brought by the Hanover County Branch NAACP in a bid to force the Hanover County School Board to rename two schools currently named for Confederate leaders could be decided on Jan. 14.
That’s when U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Payne will hear arguments on the School Board’s request to dismiss the NAACP’s suit seeking a court order requiring new names for Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School.
Judge Payne, who will hear the case at the courthouse in Downtown Richmond, has already expressed concerns about the suit that he wants attorneys for the Hanover NAACP to address.
In a preliminary order, he directed those attorneys to show that this is a genuine dispute over which the branch is entitled to sue. Judge Payne also ordered the NAACP lawyers to identify any cases that support its arguments or to show that their argument is based “on the extension of existing legal principles.”
The lawsuit was launched on Aug. 16 by the Hanover NAACP led by President Robert N. Barnette Jr., who also is president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP.
The suit aims to “eradicate the vestiges of a shameful, racist educational system in Hanover County that forces African-American students to champion a legacy of segregation and oppression” by attending schools named for rebels who fought to maintain slavery.
The lawsuit argues that the names contribute to a “hostile and discriminatory environment for African-American students” enrolled at the schools.
The suit cites incidents of racial harassment against African-American students on the part of staff and other students.
The main argument, though, is that the Hanover County School Board is violating the First and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution by forcing African- American students to attend schools with such names.
The lawsuit argues that this amounts to government-compelled speech in an “unequal learning environment” and that African-American students are harmed by being forced to experience such speech in everything from school sporting events to graduation ceremonies.
Lee-Davis, named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, opened in 1958, and Stonewall Jackson opened in 1969 at a time of heightened racial conflict in a county that was one of the last in Virginia to desegregate its public schools.
When the lawsuit was launched, Mr. Barnette urged the School Board to come up with a resolution to avoid the cost of a lawsuit. The board, though, has declined and decided just before Thanksgiving not to change the names.
“The board is not taking any action on this item,” School Board Chairman Roger Bourassa announced on Nov. 22 following a closed-door discussion.
Like most governmental entities, the School Board did not comment on pending litigation.
In statements made before the Nov. 22 decision, Mr. Bourassa said that Lee-Davis High and Stonewall Jackson Middle School eventually would be rebuilt and renamed, in order to comply with current School Board policy that bars any school in the county from being named after a person, living or dead.
Mr. Barnette questioned the board’s choice to “continue to spend thousands of dollars on a lawsuit” rather than take the initiative to change the school names and forego expensive litigation, particularly in light of Mr. Bourassa’s statement.
“I guess you could say the ball is in their court,” Mr. Barnette said.