By Rachel Weiner,
It was in a meeting of the Black Student Union at T.C. Williams High School that Lorraine Johnson first learned her school was named for a fervent segregationist who fought to keep out students like her.
On Saturday, squishing across a wet lawn in her graduation gown, Johnson was one of the last students to hold up a diploma with the words “T.C. Williams” on the front. She and other students fought successfully over the past year to change the Northern Virginia institution’s name to simply Alexandria City High School.
“Your class has taken on big ideas and challenged long-standing beliefs and traditions, especially some of those right here in Alexandria,” said Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. at Saturday’s ceremony, held in a public park just outside the school grounds. “You all have left an indelible mark on the city of Alexandria and the next generation of students.”
Another school, Matthew Maury Elementary, is also changing its name — to Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School, honoring a local Black educator who died last year, replacing the name of a Confederate veteran who tried to reestablish the plantation system in Mexico. Both new names go into effect July 1.
T.C. Williams student leaders fought not only for the name change but also for an in-person graduation ceremony after a year of remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic. In consultation with the Alexandria Health Department, the school set up hundreds of folding chairs, three feet apart, in Chinquapin Park. Luckily, although the sky was gray, rain never fell. Guests — each student could bring two — cheered and videoed from a safe distance. A photographer repeatedly reminded students that they could take off their masks to smile for the camera, though many opted to keep them on.
“Even pre-vaccination, the students had already developed plans based on what they wanted to do,” Principal Peter Balas said. “They were definitely ahead of us — it’s almost as if they had a more optimistic view of what it was going to look like, six months ahead.”
It was also students who pushed administrators to see a future without the name T.C. Williams, made famous in the film “Remember the Titans.”
That movie celebrated an integrated T.C. Williams football team, led by a Black coach, that played a perfect season in 1971.
The Titans legacy overshadowed what came before it — years of resistance to allowing Black and White students to learn together. That resistance was led by Thomas Chambliss Williams, who served as superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools from the 1930s to the 1960s. Williams, as Johnson learned, was a passionate segregationist who fought for separate White and Black schools years after the Supreme Court deemed them unconstitutional. He fired a Black cafeteria worker for joining a civil rights lawsuit to allow her children into an integrated school, and he put up obstacles to deny individual Black students’ enrollment.
Johnson, president of the school’s Black Student Union and a student representative on the Alexandria City School Board, said she learned that history from teacher Ra’Alim Shabazz.
“I never knew who T.C. Williams was,” she said. When she and others in the student union learned, she said, they were immediately concerned.
“I think most of us were poorly educated,” said Samantha Austin, 18, who only learned of Williams’s racist legacy this past year as the campaign took off.
Her classmates’ focus on getting the name changed in the middle of a pandemic, she said, showed their “resilience” — a word that came up many times during Saturday’s ceremony.
Johnson said she thought that in some ways the pandemic gave students time to organize support; last summer’s racial justice protests also helped build momentum. Last June, a group of students threw a sheet over the sign outside the building bearing the school’s name. Teachers began incorporating the school’s history into lesson plans.
“This year ends the hypocrisy of having a school that is supposed to be inclusive under the auspices of someone who wouldn’t even want to see the diversity of our student body,” Shabazz said. The current graduating class of 888 seniors, according to administrators, is about 70 percent students of color.
Still, it took months of school board meetings and multiple rounds of voting to make it happen.
“Now, the class of 2022 will get to enjoy Alexandria City High School and the new name,” Johnson said. “We’re okay with that. It’s nice to know that we started it.”
Different names were debated.
Lyndsi Cooper, who helped organize a student march down King Street after the murder of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last year, thought the honor should go to Blois Hundley, the fired cafeteria worker. Johnson was partial to “Titans City High School,” to preserve a connection with alumni.
“There were so many really cool possibilities,” Balas said. But he said he loves that the new name highlights the school’s urban nature and unique position as the only city high school.
It’s also safe from new revelations or changing mores.
“I was a little concerned,” he acknowledged, that “something would come up about somebody else in the future and we would have to do it all again.”