Alexandria’s only public high school is named after T.C. Williams, who tried to stop the school system from integrating
Last month, in the midst of protests over the police killing of George Floyd and the nation’s reckoning with racial injustice that followed, the Fairfax school board voted unanimously to change the name of Robert E. Lee high school. A few weeks later, they approved a new one: John R. Lewis High School, in honor of the congressman and Civil Rights icon who passed away earlier this month.
The speed of that decision could symbolize Virginia’s new progressive bent. But one town over in liberal northern Virginia, the Alexandria school board is still struggling to rename it’s only public high school, which bears the name of segregationist T.C. Williams.
After years lying dormant, the discussion over Alexandria’s high school resurfaced during the protests over the Floyd killing. School board leaders received a petition on June 15 from community members urging them to rename T.C. Williams High School. In their petition, community members argue that Williams’ values stand in stark contrast with the school system’s.
Thomas Chambliss Williams served as Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent in the 1960s, and was instrumental in picking the land where the current high school stands. But the city had to remove Black families from the 38-acre site to make room for the new campus. According to the Washingtonian, Williams argued for that particular site because it was cheaper than “developed” land. He was also staunchly opposed to desegregation, and actively worked to slow down integration efforts.
“It is not only unacceptable that Alexandria ever honored Williams by naming our only high school for him, but it is reprehensible that nothing has been done to change it,” the petitioners wrote in their letter to the school board. “It is long past time to remove the name of a known racist, arch-segregationist from our city’s high school.”
Marc Solomon has lived in Alexandria for six years and unsuccessfully ran for the school board in 2018. He is leading the charge to get the school renamed, and said Williams did not deserve to have the school named after him.
“Nobody really knows who T.C. Williams is anyhow. I challenge anybody who says [we shouldn’t rename the school] to name one positive thing Williams did,” Solomon said in an interview with Dogwood.
He said people in the community seem to mistakenly mix up Williams and the 2000 hit movie, “Remember The Titans,” which told the story of Black football coach Herman Boone, who helped integrate T.C. Williams High School in 1971.
“I mean the movie is called ‘Remember The Titans’ not ‘Remember T.C. Williams,’ we can forget that guy,” Solomon said laughing.
Students at the high school are also working for a name change. Josefina Oseiowusu is a rising senior at T.C. Williams, and president of the Black Student Union on campus. She explained that going to a high school named after a segregationist is uncomfortable for students of color.
“This issue is important to me because I am a Black female and the name just creates a hostile environment,” she said. “It’s unbearable for African-American students and other minority students as well.”
Both Solomon and Oseiowusu say there has been an outpouring of support from the community to change the school’s name. But members of the community have called on school officials to change the name twice in the past, with little success.
Lindsey Woodson Vick, who graduated from T.C. Williams High School back in 1995,said calls to change the name were met with more resistance.
“This was all before ‘Remember The Titans’ came out and I know that opinion has shifted since that movie was released,” she said. “But that movie is a Hollywood drama. It didn’t depict what actually happened at the school or what actually happened in the city.”
In the early 2000s, Vick’s father, Howard Woodson, who also served as the president of the Alexandria NAACP, led his own effort to change the name. He wanted to get the school renaming process approved by the school board, which had just signed off on a major renovation of the school.
When asked why the renaming process has gone through multiple different iterations without much success, Vick said school officials had been slow to work through the steps.
“The school board has been asked multiple times across decades to change the name of the school and I think it speaks to an undercurrent of racism in the city,” she said. “There just hasn’t been enough of a will to change the name of the school, it’s quite a shame.”
The community may have to continue waiting, because the renaming process is still a slow one. At a meeting on June 10, the school board voted and approved a motion to consider changing the name of the school.
“But the way this motion was worded was so clever that it got a lot of people in the community believing that the school board had made a decision to change the schools name. But that is not at all what they motion did,” Vick said.
She went on to explain that the motion meant that the board would only consider changing the name of the high school, it was not a promise that it would change.
During the board’s June 10 meeting, school board members said a name change would be difficult while planning to educate students during the ongoing pandemic. During the meeting, board member Ramee Gentry said the board is committed to the process.
“I really just want to reemphasize that the board’s adoption of this resolution, this is our commitment to doing this process,” said Gentry. “I understand the members of the community that sometimes get frustrated with the pace of change but please note that this is the reality of democracy.”
But a few miles over, Fairfax, Virginia’s largest public school system, seemed to do both.