Chuck Moran looked fondly at the portrait of his great aunt Sarepta as he carefully adjusted its position on the wall outside the Burnley-Moran Elementary School auditorium.
Chuck remembers the pride he felt as a child when his dad pulled the sheet off of Sarepta’s portrait in the 1954 unveiling. Almost 70 years later, the paintings of Sarepta Moran and Carrie Burnley — the school’s namesakes — still face each other near the auditorium doors.
Chuck has fond memories of his great aunt. Sarepta didn’t talk much with him about her time as an educator, but the family knew she was a prominent figure in Charlottesville, he said.
“She was a teacher with us, but she was not a disciplinarian,” Chuck said. “She was just a really, really wonderful influence.”
That’s partly why Chuck finds it so unfair that City Schools staff and community members have, in his view, disparaged his great-aunt’s name in the process of renaming the elementary school.
City Schools announced in early April that the school will no longer be named after Burnley or Sarepta Moran. The decision comes as part of the district-wide school naming review, in which the district is reexamining the names of each of its schools.
The district made the decision after hearing from community members who believe it is problematic to name schools after white individuals who were leaders during racial segregation.
That is exactly who Sarepta Moran was. So, when information about her was presented publicly at various district meetings this year, some Black Charlottesville students and community members came forward to say her influence is a reminder to them that their existence was once considered secondary to their white counterparts.
“These names are affecting people,” said Je’Saun Johnson, Charlottesville High School student representative for the school board. “These names are not representative of the culture of Charlottesville City Schools in the way that they should.”
Sarepta Moran and Carrie Burnley were the first two women to be school principals in Charlottesville.
Most of what City Schools officials know about these two women comes from research compiled by a local historian named Phil Varner. He published information about Moran, and all the people for whom Charlottesville schools are named, on a website that he called, “Correcting the Narrative: The Names and Namesakes of Charlottesville City Schools.”
Sarepta Moran worked at what was then called Charlottesville Public Schools from 1897 until she retired in 1945, according to Varner’s research
During her time there, she was honored for her dedication to setting “high scholastic standards” for her students, according to an old Daily Progress clipping. She was awarded the Algernon Sydney Sullivan award from the University of Virginia, which is given to people who exert great humanitarian efforts and “strive each day to better the lives of those around them.”
The trouble with these accolades from a modern interpretation is that they were given exclusively to white educators who improved the lives of white students, Varner told Charlottesville Tomorrow.
What’s more, there is evidence that the Burnley-Moran namesakes participated in racist groups and activities. Namely, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy Albemarle chapters.
The UDC campaigned for public schools to teach students the Lost Cause Myth of Civil War history, Varner said. The Lost Cause was an ideology pushed by white southerners who wanted to paint the Civil War as a heroic, patriotic effort from the South that wasn’t based in slavery, according to the Encyclopedia Virginia. It claimed that enslaved people were loyal to their owners and were not ready to face the reality of freedom, among other things.
The Albemarle chapter of the UDC, of which Sarepta Moran was a member, was also the driving force behind erecting the now infamous statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonothan Jackson in downtown Charlottesville.
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While compiling his research, Varner was unable to find any activities Sarepta Moran did while in the UDC, but did include her application to the organization. The application detailed her father’s service as a Confederate soldier. Isaac K. Moran enlisted in the Confederate States Army in 1864, at the age of 17, and served until he lost his leg in the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff in Chesterfield County later that year.
Sarepta Moran was more directly involved in the Daughters of the American Revolution, where she was the group’s historian. DAR and UDC had many of the same members and DAR excluded Black members until 1977.
According to a Daily Progress clipping in 1961, Sarepta was active in offering “awards of excellence in American history study in elementary schools” in Charlottesville on behalf of the organization.
It’s impossible to know what Sarepta Moran’s personal beliefs were about Black students and community members. But, Varner said, her membership in these two groups indicates a certain level of agreement with their racist tenets.
“We’re not trying to make a judgment, like was she a good or bad person,” said Varner. “We’re saying, should there be a school named for her, merely due to the fact that she was a member of a white supremacist organization.”
Chuck Moran thinks this isn’t fair.
Sarepta Moran didn’t have much of a choice but to join the patriotic groups, he said. As the daughter of a former Confederate soldier, it was normal to join the UDC, let alone DAR. That’s what the time called for.
Judging a person who existed during that time period is wrong, he said.
“Just because you’re a member of something, that doesn’t mean you support everything that the organization is promoting,” said Chuck Moran.
But not everyone agrees.
There are Charlottesville students who say the affiliation doesn’t have to go far for it to produce a sour image.
Johnson, the student School Board representative, said he’s done his own research on the school name. The high school student was appalled to learn the history of the namesakes, but was even more surprised when he remembered how little information he and other students received on the legacies.
“It’s like being in a building that you weren’t invited to but you didn’t know until you left,” he said. “We need to take action, and we need to start educating each other.”
Black students were not allowed to attend Burnley-Moran Elementary School for the first 40 years of its existence.
Black Charlottesville alumni have had similar reactions to learning about the school namesakes.
The legacy of the Burnley-Moran name wasn’t something Patricia Edwards, a Charlottesville alum and former City Schools teacher, paid much attention to. Even during her 20 years teaching at Charlottesville High School, she said it was rare to learn about the history of the school namesakes.
Edwards had a feeling it was something potentially controversial but was never taught the history until City Schools began to reconsider the names in 2022.
“It’s something that, in light of what we have come to know, the name needs to be changed for anybody who is associated with something that has to do with the Confederacy,” said Edwards. “I don’t think kids today, Black or white, should go to a school that’s named after somebody who found those things okay.”
City Schools is currently reconsidering the names of Burnley Moran and Johnson elementary schools. It has already renamed two others.
The School Board decided to reconsider the namesakes of all its schools in 2020 and kicked off the renaming process last fall. The district decided to start with the elementary schools and complete them by the end of the school year, then reexamine the secondary schools in the 2023-2024 school year. It’s behind schedule.
Chuck Moran is not against renaming Burnley-Moran — or any school whose namesake is connected to racist times or practices. But he said he wants the district to conduct more thorough research into the namesakes, and for the district to acknowledge that Sarepta Moran may not have been personally racist.
“In this particular case, a woman who gave her life to educating the children of Charlottesville is being represented as someone who supported slavery and white supremacy by inference, without proof,” Chuck said.
Regardless, Burnley-Moran will get a new name.
The School Board has decided to stop naming schools after individuals. Board members want to avoid having to rename schools if controversial information about the individuals arise at a later time. Names of major landmarks with “problematic associations” (such as Monticello) are also exempt. Instead, the Board intends to use names that are “aspirational” or highlight a geographical aspect or the neighborhood the school is in.
Originally, the naming committee presented the names Blue Mountain for Burnley-Moran and Cherry Avenue for Johnson elementary schools. But the School Board wasn’t satisfied with the names.
On April 13 the School Board voted to change the names of the schools from Burnley-Moran and Johnson, but hasn’t decided what they’ll be. They’ve paused the vote to have more time to find name recommendations from the two school communities. They are encouraging members of the community to send in their suggestions to schoolnames [at] charlottesvilleschools.org.