Newport News School Board votes to move forward with renaming some schools

Newport News

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) — Newport News school officials have decided to pursue renaming some city schools.

The Newport News School Board on Tuesday night voted 5-1 — with one member abstaining — to move forward with the school renaming process.

The school board could take action on renaming the schools in March 2021, according to a potential timeline for the process.

The district’s first focus is on renaming Horace Epes Elementary, R. O. Nelson Elementary, Lee Hall Elementary and J.M. Dozier Middle School.

Epes Elementary, Nelson Elementary and Dozier Middle school are named after former Newport News educators. Lee Hall is named after Lee Hall mansion.

Horace Epes was a pioneer educator and the first principal of Newport News High School. Epes also served in the Confederate army.

Robert Oliver Nelson was a former Newport News schools superintendent. John Marshall Dozier Jr. was a former Newport News School Board member. School officials say both Nelson and Dozier opted against admitting Black students at an elementary school since there was no federal court order to do so, thus prolonging segregation.

Finally, Lee Hall mansion was used as a headquarters for Confederate generals. It was owned by Richard Lee, an affluent farmer who also owned slaves.

Changing the names of some area schools has been encouraged by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“The name of every individual — that’s their legacy. That is their history,” said Andrew Shannon, vice president of the Virginia chapter of the SCLC.

A handful of speakers asked the board to consider that when making their decision Tuesday night. 

“My son was a Nelson knight,” said one woman. “I did not know at that time that the same person [Nelson] would’ve denied my son the right to even enter the school named after him.”

At-large board member Gary Hunter wanted to vote on each school separately, in particular Dozier Middle School.

Hunter said the district’s research contradicts recent claims made by a relative of J.M. Dozier.

“They’re alleging that he was in support of integrating schools,” Hunter said. “We have not done all our due diligence yet.”

Hunter abstained from the vote and Rebecca Aman, who represents the Central District, voted against. She sided with Hunter.

In July, the SCLC called on NNPS to change the name of Horace Epes Elementary, one of those currently under consideration.

“We are reminded of the many who opposed our efforts in 2016 for the removal of the names of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the public school buildings in the City of Hampton,” the SCLC wrote in a July email.

The SCLC has also called on Hampton City Schools to change the Confederate name of John B. Cary Elementary school.

Next up, the district plans to form a community-based diversity and inclusion task force for the renaming process. They’ll also hire a historian to look into six other campuses identified for a potential name change.

School officials said the cost for renaming a campus ranges between $150,000 and $460,000 depending on whether it’s an elementary, middle or high school.

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