City Schools naming committee recommends Johnson Elementary School become Cherry Avenue and Burnley-Moran become Blue Mountain

A yellow and blue sign that reads "James G Johnson School" sits outside on a lawn.

Charlottesville City Schools Naming of Facilities committee has recommended the School Board rename Burnley-Moran Elementary School to Blue Mountain and Johnson Elementary School to Cherry Avenue.

The two schools were named after people who led the school division in the early- and mid-1900s.

Burnley-Moran is named after Sarepta Moran and Carrie Burnley, the first two women to become principals in the school system. They were principals during the Jim Crow era when schools were racially segregated by law. Both were members of the Daughters of the Confederacy and participated in movements to erect local Confederate statues and bring Lost Cause history lessons to their white-only schools, according to research conducted by Phil Varner, a local historian.

James G. Johson was a superintendent of the school district for nearly 40 years, also during the Jim Crow era. While he was in charge, the division spent twice as much money on white students as it did on Black students. And for the first 20 years of his tenure, there was no high school for Black children in Charlottesville. The division built one under Johnson’s leadership.

More about local school renamings

The naming committee surveyed students, staff and the community of each elementary about what names they would like. The surveys are meant to inform the School Board’s decision, officials have said. But the Board might not choose for the names that received the most survey votes. This was discussed after the Board went against the will of the third and fourth-grade students at Venable and Clark, who voted for a name the Board did not end up choosing..

After holding a community forum, the naming of facilities committee decided on new name options to present to school students, staff and community members in those surveys. Those in the Johnson community decided between Cherry Avenue and Forest Hills. And for those associated with Burnely-Moran, the Blue Mountain, Blue Ridge Mountain and Rivana were considered. 

At Johnson, the majority of students voted to keep the existing name, whereas the majority of staff at the school voted for Cherry Avenue. Altogether, about half of the Johnson community — students, staff, families and those who live near the school — voted in favor of changing the name Johnson, though there wasn’t a consensus on what the new name should be.

For Burnley-Moran, Blue Mountain won over both students and staff in the school survey. More than half of Burnley-Moran community respondents voted in favor of a name change. Those who attended the forum suggested the committee maintain the BME initials. 

A month later, the naming committee presented the final names to the board. The two elementary schools are the third and fourth to go through the renaming process — Trailblazers (formerly Venable) and Summit (previously Clark) names were changed in January. 

Once the names of Burnley-Moran and Johnson are decided, the division will reconsider Greenbrier and Jackson-Via elementary schools. Officials will review Walker Upper Elementary School and Buford Middle School next year. Charlottesville High School and Lugo McGinness Academy will not be reconsidered. Board Member LaShaundra Morsberger said the division should stop naming schools after individuals to avoid addressing the controversy year after year.

“Am I always supposed to tell my kid, things are named after this person with an asterisk? It’s named after this person who was principal, but you couldn’t go to this school during that time period,” said Morsberger. “Most people are problematic in general.”

Some have expressed that changing the name of schools belittles the contributions the namesakes made to the school system. Sherry Kraft, another board member, echoed Morseberger’s statement by adding that the action is not intended to “disparage or reduce” any person or their accomplishments. Removing the name of a person should not lessen their accomplishments, she said. The committee agrees.

Beth Baptist, chair of the Naming of Facilities Committee, said they have flirted with the idea of establishing a rule not to name a school after a person to avoid further controversy. (Albemarle County Public Schools did this during its facility renaming process.) The name Williams —  of Scheryl Williams Glanton, one of the four students who desegregated Johnson in 1962 — was thrown into the mix in January by Williams herself, but discarded by the committee to avoid naming a school after a person. 

For the community members who were not in support of the name changes, the process of renaming comes with many holes. 

Derek Hartline, a former Johnson teacher, said the voting process needed to give more room for teachers and community members to vote to keep the name the same. He then questioned how Burnely-Moran was the first school to have the option to maintain its initials, whereas Venable and Clark Elementary Schools weren’t given the same. 

Hartline himself presented a petition of over a hundred signatures from city residents to keep the name Johnson. Board members did not immediately respond to Hartline’s survey. 

The former teacher held up a red t-shirt with white lettering listing the names of all Charlottesville schools on one side, and #CvilleSchools and #BetterTogether on the other. 

“When the names were together, we were better,” he said. “But now we’ve just separated [the names], and turned this shirt into a relic.”

The School Board will vote on whether to rename Burnley-Moran and Johnson at its April 6 meeting.