HANOVER COUNTY, Va. -- Despite heavy rain, thunder, and lightning hundreds of people rallied, protested, and marched in Hanover County Friday afternoon to mark Juneteenth and to call for several changes to the Hanover County Public School (HCPS) system.
Chief among them was for the HCPS Board to rename Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School, both named for prominent members of the Confederacy, and to change each school’s nickname — “Confederates” for Lee-Davis and “Rebels” for Stonewall Jackson.
Friday’s event was organized by the Hanover County NAACP and its president, Robert Barnette, elaborated on some of the specific changes they want to see in HCPS.
“We want Dr. Jerome Ross to be appointed to the Hanover County School Board,” said Barnette. “And number three, we want to make sure that… the school board understands that there’s not enough Black faculty members in Hanover County.”
Barnette said Ross is a pastor of the Providence Park Baptist Church in Richmond, but he lives in the Chickahominy District of Hanover County.
“He’s a renowned educator. He was a professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland,” added Barnette. “He understands education perfectly and he understands the community in which we live.”
Barnette also provided an update on his chapter’s lawsuit challenging the names of the two schools. This past May it was dismissed by a federal judge. Barnette said they should have an appeal filed in that case by the second week of July.
“We have provided a notice of appeal,” said Barnette. “We haven’t filed the official appeal, but we have notified the court the we will appeal.”
The rally began at the Mechanicsville Library and featured several speeches including from one from a current student at Lee-Davis who has started a Change.org petition calling for the renaming of the school and its mascot. As of Friday afternoon, it had garnered over 20,000 signatures.
“20,000 people who understand how unfair and demeaning it is for these Black students and teachers to have to call themselves ‘Confederates’. 20,000 who are now watching Hanover County waiting for change to come,” Sophie Lynn told the crowd. “Hanover needs to stop protecting these racists and start protecting Black students. It’s time to make these racists uncomfortable. It’s time to show them that they have no place in Hanover County and especially no place in our schools. Because change is coming whether they like it or not.”
A former Lee-Davis student also addressed the crowd and tied in the celebration of Juneteenth, marking end of slavery in the United States, with the calls for renaming the schools.
“155 years ago today, there were slaves waiting to hear a message. They were unaware that they were free,” said Avi Hopkins. “And on June 19, 2020 we will not stand still. We will no longer wait on them. We are marching for the truth and the truth is those names are racist and they are oppressive to people of color.”
“And today, I am not here for myself. I am here for every young person of color that will walk the hallways of those schools in the future,” added Hopkins. “It is time to break the chains. It is time to change the names.”
Following the speeches, the crowd then marched for approximately 30 minutes around the two schools, which are nearby, before returning to the rally spot.
CBS 6 reached out to the Hanover County School Board Chairman, John F. Axeselle III for a response to the Hanover County NAACP’s demands.
Axeselle said he could not comment on the pending appeal regarding the lawsuit but added “the School Board respects, values, and cares about every student and will continue to focus on providing them with the best educational opportunities possible.”
Regarding the request for the hiring of more Black teachers, Axeselle wrote.
“Each year [HCPS Superintendent] Dr. Gill and our staff work diligently to hire more qualified teachers of color and pursue multiple avenues in the process, which includes seeking suggestions and advice from the NAACP and other organizations.”
As to the appointment to the school board, Axeselle noted appointments fall under the purview of the Board of Supervisors and not the school board. CBS 6 had reached out to the Hanover County Government about the demands as well, but a spokesperson said they had no comment.
“[W]e live in a wonderful country where citizens are allowed to express their opinions freely and welcome the free exchange of ideas and concerns. Peaceful protests are one of the ways this can be accomplished,” Axeselle continued.