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Judge to Decide Whether NAACP Lawsuit Will Go to Trial

Man wearing glasses with a goatee
Hanover NAACP President Robert Barnette (Photo: Charles Fishburne/VPM)

A federal judge in Richmond will determine Monday whether a lawsuit to change the names of two Hanover County schools can move forward. 

Federal District Court Judge Robert Payne is expected to hear oral arguments from attorneys representing the Hanover County School Board and Hanover County NAACP before deciding whether it will go to trial.

In a lawsuit filed in August, the Hanover County NAACP alleges the names of Lee Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School violate constitutional rights of African American students in the district. 

More specifically, the lawsuit argues that forcing students to “attend a school rife with Confederate imagery creates an environment that denies students of color an equal opportunity to an education and violates their right to Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment”  and that the school board’s decision to name, maintain and endorse the names “subjects African American students to severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive racial harassment.”

Robert Barnette, president of the Hanover County Chapter of the NAACP, says he’s witnessed how the school names – and team mascots of rebels and Confederates - have negatively impacted black students and contributed to an “unwelcome atmosphere” for them.

“Students are made to wear the jerseys that highlight Lee Davis and Stonewall Jackson,” Barnette said. “It puts African Americans in a very peculiar situation, really having to identify with Confederate generals.”

He says student athletes have even been taunted by opposing teams during school games.  

“They shout obscenities like, here comes the Confederates, the slaves will be next…all kinds of derogatory sayings,” Barnette said. “Kids don’t want to be subjected to that type of harassment.”

Barnette says the names are “vestiges of segregation,” since they were chosen by the school board during Massive Resistance when school officials threatened to close the schools before they’d admit African American students. Barnette thinks refusal of the school board to change the names gave the KKK “the OK to come into the county” for a recruitment event it held last July. 

The Hanover County School Board has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Hanover County School Board Chairman John Axselle said in an email Friday the school board is unable to comment on the pending litigation.


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