Name Change for A.P. Hill Elementary School?

Ap_hillAmbrose 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.

Petersburg Progress-Index, September 15, 1960
Petersburg Progress-Index, September 15, 1960

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.

Petersburg Progress-Index, August 6, 1961
Petersburg Progress-Index, August 6, 1961

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.

The original 1914 building still stands as a community center at 1237 Halifax Street.
The original 1914 building still stands as a community center at 1237 Halifax Street.

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.”

11 Responses to Name Change for A.P. Hill Elementary School?

  1. But WHY? Just because of modern day political climate? It sounds like the REAL issues for this school and the administrators is to fix the school and make it a successful place for education…not focus on a name change. Would they change the name of a school if it was originally in a predominantly black neighborhood named after Malcom X and then the neighborhood became predominantly white? No…of course not. Double standard throughout this debate and not enough attention spent on dealing with real problems….and the Petersburg area has PLENTY to deal with

    1. Thank you, Mr. Orrison. Enough on all of this, To ECW people; you are losing your momentum as web site featuring unknown writers, and a few good ones, too. But all of this social/political zeitgeist stuff is enough, by now. Was A.P. Hill impetuous? Let’s speak to that. And, one more thing; teachers like me used to say that the main agents of socialization for children are, in this order; Family, Church, School. THAT is what makes education work, and the first one went out when we burned underwear in the 60’s and we’re ostracizing and marginalizing the second one very nicely, too. Call the school Dan Sickles or O. Howard , or whatever . It’s meaningless symbolism. Save your blog, people.

    2. I won’t dispute that Petersburg and its schools have greater issues to concern themselves with than a name change. But part of their solution–as evidenced by the “I am Petersburg” campaign–is to cultivate more pride in their city. Is A.P. Hill, who was sidelined for most of the siege by his condition, even someone for students to take pride in? Between Hill’s performance–or lack thereof–during the campaign, the demographics at the school intentionally created by white flight, and the fact that Hill’s not even from Petersburg, I don’t see how the name is, or ever was, appropriate. I’d say the same is true of Petersburg’s Jeb Stuart Elementary. I’m not sure if the cavalryman ever spent significant time in the Cockade City.

      1. To that point…what pride is cultivated in Douglas Southall Freeman High School in Richmond? Or better yet, a local school near me called Hilton High School – named after a local developer. I just worry that we waste a ton of money every generation renaming every school just to meet the current trend…its a bad precedent (look at New Orleans removing anything to do with George Washington on their schools…) Silliness

    1. I’ll bet this comment was made from a mindset of heritage not hatred, yes?

  2. My fellow Americans, we are wasting a LOT of energy on these name changes. I just saw some Democrat Party committee in Connecticut decided to scrub Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson (!!!!!) from their history. Just leave it be and focus on moving things to a better place. Are those Petersburg kids really in agony when they learn about General Hill?

    Heck, in my neighborhood we’ve got Jeb Stuart High School, and at this point it’s gotta be 1/3 vietnamese, 1/3 salvadoran, 1/6 black and 1/6 korean. But they are proud “Raiders” and it’s not hard to appreciate the situation as a sign of progress. Stuart himself had a decent sense of humor so maybe he’s up there chuckling at the irony of the whole thing (esp. since the Vietnamese students are the kids of parents from SOUTH Vietnam.)

    Just move on, or else we’ll reach a point where we have to re-name everything every 20 years or so to reflect whatever’s fashionable.

    1. I’m curious if the students there really learn about A.P. Hill. Since he doesn’t fall into the Virginia Standards of Learning, I’m skeptical that he’s even taught–outside of maybe saying, “oh he was a Confederate general.” I know that I was not taught anything in class about R.M. Millikin or J.D. Darnall, who gave their names to my elementary and high schools. With popular approval, the school board even changed the high school’s name my senior year to simply Geneseo High School to demonstrate civic pride in the town.

      I appreciate your whimsical opinion of Jeb Stuart but I’d bet that like most Confederate generals, and many northern ones at that, he’d be aghast about state-funded, public, integrated schools that catered to that demographic breakdown.

  3. Middle-class flight, de facto segregation and the deplorable condition of urban schools are titanic issues in American society. It is perfectly appropriate, and a very nicely written post, to discuss name changes for urban schools. It does not matter that there are “larger” issues at stake. Deleting a Confederate name does nothing to solve any of the deeper problems… nor did Mr. Alexander suggest that it would. But so much academic failure is rooted in poor support for students from their family and their community. It is important for parents and neighborhood leaders to “own” their local school system, and if that means removal of an outdated name, then it is literally the least we can do.

  4. “To that point…what pride is cultivated in Douglas Southall Freeman High School in Richmond?”

    I have a hard time telling online . . . is that facetious?

    Douglas Southall Freeman was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose work continues to illuminate the CW. His work as a military historian led to friendships with people like George Marshall. It’s even rumored that he’s the friend who convinced Eisenhower he could run for president and win.

    And he was a Richmonder, so the location is certainly appropriate.

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