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George Mason Elementary Renamed After Henry L. Marsh, First African-American Mayor of Richmond

People sitting in a room for a public meeting
A Richmond School Board meeting. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Richmond Public Schools approved new names for three new schools slated to open in fall 2020. Among them is George Mason Elementary, which is being replaced by new construction and will be renamed Henry L. Marsh Elementary. Marsh is a well-known civil rights lawyer and politician who attended George Mason as a child and was elected as Richmond’s first African-American mayor in the 1970s. 

“He is a giant in our community, and I’m so glad that we’re honoring him in this way,” said school board member Felicia Cosby.

School board member Jonathan Young was the sole “no” vote, saying he was “most displeased” with the recommendation to repeal George Mason’s “rightful place in history.” 

In early January, the district’s renaming team brought forward Marsh’s name as well as that of Rosa Dixon Bowser, Richmond’s first black teacher, and Ethel Bailey Furman, the earliest known black architect in Virginia. Another recommended name was Church Hill Elementary School. 

These names rose to the top after suggestions from the district’s portal were tallied. Names with more than one recommendation were tallied.

School board member Kenya Gibson says she was happy to see local folks came to the forefront. 

“I’m thankful that we’re appreciating the things that make Richmond special,” Gibson said. 

Marsh is the only nominee still living. Marsh was not available for an interview Tuesday but wrote in a statement that he was honored by the decision.

“I grew up in the neighborhood and attended the school before beginning my lifetime of community service and work as an advocate for public education,” wrote Marsh. “It is my hope that my story will be an inspiration to children throughout our community.  I also hope it will remind them that you can come from humble beginnings and still be able to achieve your dreams.”

Robert Barnette, president of Hanover County’s NAACP chapter, called Marsh “a true pioneer when it comes to civil rights” and said renaming George Mason Elementary after him is “a wonderful thing to do.”

Richmond’s NAACP president J.J. Minor said he supports renaming the school after Marsh, too. He says he’s also trying to get a city statue dedicated to Marsh. 

At a public hearing on Jan 27, a number of people spoke in support of renaming the school Henry L. Marsh. Renaming team member Ingrid Addison says 236 ballots were submitted by students the next day. 112 students recommended naming the school Church Hill Elementary, and 56 chose Henry L. Marsh.

“I personally feel like we need to listen to the student voice,” Addison said. “They shouldn’t be penalized for the fact that they can’t make it to the school board meetings.”

She would’ve liked to see the students’ vote honored by naming the school Church Hill Elementary instead, pointing to other schools in the districts named after neighborhoods like Chimborazo, Swansboro, and Fairfield Court. 

The district’s superintendent Jason Kamras has said being a slave owner disqualifies George Mason from the honor of having one of the city’s schools named after him. However, there are currently no plans underway to change the name of Thomas Jefferson High School, who was also a slave owner.

In June 2018, the school board voted to rename J.E.B. Stuart Elementary Obama Elementary. The district held a renaming ceremony last week.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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