A Virginia school, Jefferson Davis Middle School, will have its name changed to Cesar Tarrant Middle School in September, according to the Daily Press. The Hampton School Board unanimously decided to change the name to honor the slave and Revolutionary War hero on Wednesday night.
Tarrant was born in what is now Hampton, Virginia around 1740. According to the Daily Press, he was a skilled navigator and rammed a ship into a larger British vessel, earning himself a citation for gallantry. Tarrant reportedly ignored the British royal governor’s offer of emancipation when he joined the navy.
Despite his bravery during the American Revolution, he had to return to slavery, however. Five years after the death of his slaveowner, Carter Tarrant, the Virginia assembly gave him his freedom. He spent the rest of his life trying to buy his family’s freedom and was partly successful, since he bought his wife and daughter but two other children were left enslaved.
There was another Virginia school holding Tarrant’s name, Cesar Tarrant Elementary School, but it closed after budget cuts and low enrollment. The school, where 92 percent of the student body was Black, opened in 1970 and closed in 2015. Sixty-eight percent of Jefferson Davis Middle School students are Black, yet it took years of conversations for support of a name change to finally gain momentum.
There were two public hearings held in 2016 on the issue of a name change for this school and Campus at Lee, named after Robert E. Lee, where 31 people spoke against the changes and 10 spoke in favor of them, according to the Daily Press. But after white supremacists held a rally in Charlottesville, during which three people died, with one person, Heather Heyer, dying after she was hit by a car driven by a neo-Nazi, the effort gained traction again. The Hampton Branch NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference urged the board to reconsider. Then, 88 people spoke in favor of changing the names and 15 said the names should remain. In December, Hampton City Schools announced The Campus at Lee, an alternative learning center, would have its name changed to Hampton City Schools Adult and Alternative Learning Center.
When demonstrators held a rally in favor of changing the names in August, Gaylene Kanoyton, president of the NAACP Hampton chapter said, “To have a name on a school that represents hate, segregation, slavery, KKK and the whole nine yards is just wrong.”
Now that the school’s name will change, Kanoyton said the NAACP Hampton chapter was excited about schools “getting on the right side of history.”
In October of last year, a Mississippi elementary school announced it would change its name from Davis IB Elementary School, for Jefferson Davis, to honor former President Barack Obama. Janelle Jefferson, president of the school’s PTA, told the Clarion Ledger, “Jefferson Davis, although infamous in his own right, would probably not be too happy about a diverse school promoting the education of the very individuals he fought to keep enslaved being named after him.”
That same month, Fairfax County School Board voted to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School, named after James Ewell Brown Stuart, a Confederate general and cavalry commander, to Justice High School. The board considered Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall but it conflicted with another local school named after George C. Marshall.
A student, Max Knight, told the News4 at the time, “You don’t learn history by looking at the name of a school. You learn from textbooks and museums. So, we’re not erasing [the history] in that way, we’re just not glorifying him by having the school named after him.”
In 2016, Yale University announced it would name one of its two new residential colleges after Dr. Anna Pauline Murray, a Black and queer scholar, lawyer, and activist who was the first Black person to receive a doctor of juridical science degree at the unviersity. Last year, Yale also announced it would change the name of Calhoun College, which honored John C. Calhoun, who said slavery was a “positive good,” to instead honor Grace Murray Hopper. She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer during World War II and also helped develop the Mark II and Mark III computers. Georgetown University announced the renaming of two buildings on campus named after slaveowners to the names “Freedom Hall” and “Remembrance Hall” in 2015.
Some schools are dragging their feet, however, when it comes to making big changes to school names. A San Antonio school district voted to change its name in October from Lee High School, named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, to Legacy of Educational Excellence High School, or LEE High School. The board president, Shannon Grona, said the choice was a compromise that would retain the school’s history, according to the Associated Press. But trustee Edd White said the choice is simply an effort to “put lipstick on a pig.”