Ambrose Powell Hill has a secure enough legacy. The general is buried under his own monument which towers above the Hermitage-Labernum intersection in Richmond, placed there by major-turned-developer Lewis Ginter to promote a new residential neighborhood. Three markers denote where he died in Dinwiddie County–a Sons of Confederate Veterans granite memorial that claims he was shot by “stragglers,” a VDOT historical marker along U.S. Route 1, and a small granite monument marking the probable location of his shooting by Corporal John W. Mauk.
Fort A.P. Hill, established in 1941 in Virginia’s Caroline County, continues to serve as a joint and combined arms training facility. The Defense Department has stated that it has no immediate plans to alter the names of military bases honoring Confederate generals. But does the Third Corps commander’s name really belong on a Petersburg school, abandoned by white flight, with a 97% black enrollment?
A career soldier, A.P. Hill never personally owned slaves. Biographers and fans like to cherry pick a letter from 1850 where Hill hoped that Culpeper authorities would “hang every son of a bitch” responsible for lynching a black man accused of murdering a white man. But that does not give us definitive proof that the southern general opposed the institution.
Hill had a vested interest in the survival of the Confederacy. He is quoted as commenting in March of 1865 that he did not wish to survive the fall of Richmond. His reckless ride on April 2nd guaranteed that outcome.
Just over a mile from where Hill began his fatal journey that spring morning stands A.P. Hill Elementary School. The school has been denied accreditation for the past two years. Peabody Middle School, the next step in a crumbling ladder, has been denied accreditation for the past nine years. Students report back to class from a shortened summer break on August 5th this year as both are on a year-round school calendar to address the challenge. The problems run deeper than a name on the school’s marquee.
The original building was constructed in 1914, the same year that the Sons of Confederate Veterans erected their memorial on Boydton Plank Road. It was a segregated school that served only the white population. By the middle of the 20th century, the numbers for that demographic had plummeted in the area.
On September 14, 1960, the Petersburg School Board voted to close the school. Only 55 students were registered that year, a severe drop from 141 on opening day of 1959. Superintendent John D. Meade had decided to limit the facility, which could handle 250 students, to second and third grades and the “handicapped” class. “It would have been economically unsound for us to keep first, fourth and fifth teachers at A.P. Hill,” he explained. Now he wanted to temporarily abandon the structure altogether.
“The building, located in the 1200 block of Halifax St., is a predominately Negro neighborhood as most of the few white families have moved from the area,” reported the Progress-Index, ” The school board claimed that “decreased white population in the area made it financially impractical to operate.”
Meade reported that the building was in good shape and emphasized that he wanted to repurpose the facility again in the future. The school board had just approved installation of a new heating system the previous year and spent $1,602.87 to replace windows which they believed were intentionally broken.
The closure of A.P. Hill Elementary School came at a time when the Petersburg School District reported its enrollment–8,014 students–as its largest to date. Of that number 3,378 were white and 4,276 were black. Though the Supreme Court declared in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional, southern states like Virginia followed a policy of Massive Resistance to ignore its ruling. School boards like that at Petersburg were not ones to rock the boat.
Black parents on the western side of Petersburg would have to fill out miles of paperwork and incur the wrath of their white neighbors who remained just to transfer their children into a hostile environment at A.P. Hill Elementary. It just seemed easier to continue to attend Giles B. Cooke Elementary, scarce resources and all.
The next year, 1961–the centennial of the beginning of the war–the Petersburg School Board proposed to convert the old A.P. Hill building “from white to Negro use.” After serving four years in that fashion, the board requested that the Petersburg City Council rebuild A.P. Hill Elementary to house 720 students. They estimated the project at $600,000. Construction was completed one year later at a new site half a mile down Halifax Street that could support an even larger student body.
Superintendent Meade declared at that time that Petersburg had one of the finest school systems in the state.
In 1969, the Supreme Court ordered immediate desegregation in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education. “The obligation of every school district is to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate now and hereafter only unitary schools.” The school on Halifax Street remained essentially segregated, however. The first year after the court’s ruling there were 5 white students and 810 black students at A.P. Hill School, which hosted now 1st through 7th graders. With the exodus from the neighborhoods complete, resources, funding, and support for the school proved a challenge, then and today.
Forty-five years later the ratio is pretty much the same at the now K-5 school which faces a daunting task to provide a proper education for its students. A.P. Hill Elementary School’s rankings are quite abysmal, so I won’t naively pretend that a name change will make a dramatic difference. But its students do deserve a name on their school they could take pride in.
Throughout the nation, school boards are reevaluating the decisions made in the past to name nearly two hundred public schools after Confederate leaders. Of course there will be those who claim “heritage not hate” and defense of one’s state, but those arguments do not have ground to stand upon in the Halifax Street neighborhoods. They were forfeited in the white flight from the area. The heritage of A.P. Hill Elementary students does not lie with the Confederate Third Corps commander.
There are plenty of role models that students on Petersburg’s west side could look to for inspiration. What about the Fauntleroy Elementary in honor of Hermanze and Germaine Fauntleroy? Herman served as the first black mayor of Petersburg and Gerry was the first black superintendent of the city’s schools. Those two distinctions also earn the same recognition for being the first in kind for the state of Virginia.
There’s also Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, who protested the Petersburg Public Library’s restriction on its black patrons to basement access only. Walker, who later served as chief of staff for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested for the first of seventeen times in 1958 for marching up to the first floor librarian and asking for the first volume of Douglas Southall Freeman’s R.E. Lee. He dryly found amusement “to think that white southerners would arrest him for trying to read about their most cherished hero.”