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Hanover school board rejects keeping Gandy name for new building

A group of people dressed in suits sit behind a long bench in a gray room. Another person dressed in a suit stand at a podium and speaks into a microphone
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Chris Whitley, Assistant Superintendent of Community Engagement and Legislative Affairs, gives remarks during the Hanover County Public School Board meeting on Tuesday, May 9, 2023 at Hanover County Public Schools in Ashland, Virginia.

The consolidated John M. Gandy and Henry Clay schools will be named Ashland Elementary.

The name John M. Gandy Elementary is important for many residents in Hanover County, as it was the only school in the area to educate Black students until the school division was fully integrated in 1969.

Gandy, the son of formerly enslaved parents from Mississippi, grew to be a prominent Virginia educator. In 1898, he was appointed as a professor at Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, now known as Virginia State University, where he later became its third president.

Many Hanover residents voiced their support to retain the name Gandy for the school, which serves students in third through fifth grades, as it’s combined with Henry Clay Elementary, which serves students in pre-K through second grades.

For weeks leading up to their meeting Tuesday night, the Hanover School Board heard from teachers, students and school alumni about the importance of preserving the name John M. Gandy.

"I think that the new school name should be Gandy. The name represents our county's African American history,” said Ginny Ray, a former Gandy student, at an April school board meeting. “When students learn about the school's namesake, they learn that history is not just white people. It's a symbol for kids — all races feel accepted and know that they can do special things."

Despite their requests, the board voted 6–1 in favor of naming its new elementary school building Ashland Elementary, after the town of Ashland where it will be located. It’s set to open for the 2024-25 school year.

Ashland District School Board Representative Ola J. Hawkins was the single opposing vote, to the dismay of residents like Pat Hunter-Jordan, president of the Hanover NAACP.

“Frankly, we are very upset, and very tired of them [the school board] being the seven people who make all of the decisions for all of our children, and not listen to anything that our community has to say,” Hunter-Jordan said.

A person holding notes stand and speaks into a microphone
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Patricia Hunter-Jordan from the Hanover NAACP, gives remarks during a Hanover County Public School Board meeting on Tuesday, May 9, 2023 at Hanover County Public Schools.

The community was largely in favor of keeping the Gandy school name, according to a survey conducted by a naming committee made up of seven members, one from each magisterial district.

The committee was formed by the school board in mid-March and tasked with reviewing input on the new consolidated school. It received a total of 692 responses prior to the March 24 deadline, Chairperson Wanda Edward said to the board during its April 11 meeting.

“After receipt of much public input, the overwhelming majority of input from the community was to retain the name of John M. Gandy Elementary School,” Edward said.

However, a policy adopted by the school board in 2000 states: “No school, school building, school room, track, gymnasium, stadium, media center or library, field, nor any other portion of the campus or facility on the campus will be named for a person (living or deceased).”

In accordance with said policy, Edward and the committee recommended renaming the school Berkleytown Elementary, after Ashland’s historic Berkleytown District. The area grew as a Black community after Ashland mandated segregation in 1911. Some school board members agreed with the recommendation.

“I am in support … of accepting the recommendation of the committee,” said Robert L. Hundley Jr., representative of the nearby Chickahominy District at the board’s Tuesday meeting. “We have an opportunity tonight to acknowledge our past by the fact that this is a geographical named area of our history.”

Ultimately, the board was split 4-3 on accepting the name Berkleytown Elementary, leaving residents like Hunter-Jordan to wonder if this whole process was retribution for renaming schools named after Confederate leaders. In 2020, the school board voted to rename the Lee-Davis High School to Mechanicsville High; Stonewall Jackson Middle School became Bell Creek Middle.

“There was no reason they could not have named that school Berkleytown,” Hunter-Jordan said. “They chose not to simply because they wanted to make certain it was what they wanted. Not what the community wanted, but what they wanted.”

Henry District School Board Representative George Sutton, however, described the name Ashland Elementary as simply the path of least resistance between several dissenting opinions.

“You know Mr. Chairman, we're faced again as a board with — we are many times — with voting on something where we can't please everyone,” Sutton said. “There is one name that it appears fewer people certainly have problems with, maybe just a few.”

Lyndon German covers Henrico and Hanover counties for VPM News.