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Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023

Tonight’s the night! If you’re interested in the various local efforts happening to consider the names we give public places and institutions, we’re hosting a community conversation with the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society tonight at 5:30 p.m. at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Central Branch. The event is free and open to anyone, so come down and join in!

A sign reads "Burnley-Moran School."
Credit: Illustration/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Renaming History: A conversation about the names we give our institutions

The event will begin with a panel discussion featuring three community members who are deeply connected to this topic in different ways. Those community members are Chuck Moran, whose great aunt was a namesake of Charlottesville’s Burnley-Moran Elementary School; Karen Waters, the director of community education at Albemarle County Public Schools; and Lorenzo Dickerson, a local storyteller and documentary filmmaker who helped identify and commemorate the first 26 African American students to desegregate Albemarle County Schools.

Following the panel, we will open up the conversation to members of the audience. For those of you who wish to participate, we invite you to think about the personal connections you have to the individuals for whom our institutions are named. What is your relationship to some of the names you see around you, and how does it make you feel about those places?

To give you a little background going in, here is a selection of stories about various efforts to rename local institutions.

To start, we will be hosting this event in the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, where a group of Charlottesville residents lobbied unsuccessfully last year for the library system to change its name.

Several people are pictured from behind seated in a meeting space. Someone stands at a podium in front of them addressing people seated at the front of the room.
Credit: Credit: Tamica Jean Charles/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Community members clash in tense meeting over whether to remove slaveholding presidents’ names from Jefferson Madison Regional Library

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, is a beloved and extremely influential local figure. In addition to being president, he authored the Declaration of Independence, held multiple other high level positions in the early American government, founded the University of Virginia and owned the famous Monticello plantation.

And, in the last few years especially, more people locally are questioning Jefferson’s legacy. He was a very wealthy man, who enriched himself and his family by owning hundreds of Black people whom he enslaved to work on his estate, Monticello. One of those enslaved people was a woman named Sally Hemings who had six children with Jefferson while she was enslaved by him. She gave birth to her first child fathered by Jefferson when she was 16. Jefferson was in his mid 40s. You can learn more about Sally Hemings in this article, published by the The Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

The Reclaimed Roots Descendants Alliance, a group of Charlottesville-area descendents of enslaved people, lobbied the library to change its name last summer. That effort was ultimately blocked by elected officials in surrounding counties, which are a part of the library system. The contract the library system has with those jurisdictions does not allow the library board to change the name without each jurisdiction’s sign off.

A man stands beside a historic-looking portrait of a woman.

The great nephew of one of the Burnley-Moran Elementary School namesakes defends his aunt’s legacy

Another local name change to think about going into this panel discussion is of the Burnley-Moran Elementary School. The school has not been renamed. The School Board voted to change it, but is still searching for a replacement name. The decision came as part of Charlottesville City Schools’ ongoing effort to review the names of its schools.

Many Charlottesville schools are named after local white people who were leaders during a time of massive resistance, Jim Crow and other forms of government mandated racial segregation. And early conversations about those names involved a lot of discussion about those individuals’ lives, actions and beliefs — especially as it relates to racism and white supremacy.

With this school in particular, a local historian named Phil Warner was able to find a lot of information about Carrie Burnley, a local teacher and principal. She was an active member of the Daughters of the Confederacy, and involved directly in the group’s efforts to install Confederate monuments around the city. There is also record of her involving the pupils in various activities related to those monuments.

There’s less information about Sarepta Moran, another local school teacher and principal. What we do know is that she was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Sarepta’s nephew, Chuck Moran, says this is not sufficient reason to say she was racist, or supported white supremacy. And we as a community should not view her as such.

Chuck Moran is one of our panelists tonight, so stop by if you’d like to hear more from him!

A woman stands at a podium in an auditorium smiling as she speaks into a microphone.
Credit: Screenshot of Jan. 12, 2023 Albemarle County School Board meeting

Albemarle School Board votes to rename Meriwether Lewis Elementary to divest itself from racist past

During the school name review process last year, the Charlottesville School Board decided it will no longer permit its schools to be named after human beings. Period.

Albemarle County Public Schools is also reviewing all of its school names, but has not decided to jettison all its namesakes. That means, each school review involves discussion of the merits and beliefs of the people for whom the schools are named.

Not all the names have been changed. Broadus Wood Elementary School, Mary Carr Greer Elementary School, and Virginia L. Murray Elementary School were reviewed and their names kept.

But the district has made changes that surprised some county residents. Last January, the board voted to rename Meriwether Lewis Elementary School to Ivy Elementary School, despite conducting a survey that showed the majority of students there wanted the district to keep the name.

The school was named for the explorer, who led an expedition with William Clark into the Pacific Northwest. Lewis lived in Albemarle County, where he owned a 17,000 acre plantation and enslaved dozens of Black people to work there. 

“I think with Meriwether, the legend of his story was much greater than the actual person,” Karen Waters, the director of community education at Albemarle County Public Schools, told the School Board at the time of the vote. “I think the real story about him is that your perspective is shaped by who is controlling the narrative and what information you have, but it wasn’t difficult to uncover all of this additional information.”

Like Moran, Walters will also be a member of our panel discussion tonight. So come by if you’d like to hear more about this decision.

We hope to see you there!

Jessie Higgins, managing editor

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I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.