The Confederacy, Whitney Houston, Willie Lanier & Me ...


Incredulous and more than a tad bit worried, I watched the Confederate flag ceremoniously lowered for the last time from the South Carolina State House.  I welcomed the news  that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) and other governors were removing the flag from automobile license plates and that businesses such as NASCAR (!), Walmart, E-bay, Amazon and others were banning the controversial flag and paraphernalia from their shelves. 

Eventually, fear of the inevitable and evil pushback gave way to joy and triumph.  To celebrate, I found a  video of Whitney Houston's rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and played it loud as I sang along.  Repeatedly.

Still, my worries about "pushback" from the progeny of dead Confederates are well-founded and based on direct experience.  

Allow me to explain.  I will never forget the shocked face of NFL Hall of Famer, Willie Lanier -- a graduate of Maggie Walker High School -- as we stood in the middle of Ellwood Thompson's grocery store way back in 2003.

Lanier extended his hand and said he recognized me from the news and that he just wanted "to shake the hand of the woman who had stood up to the Confederacy and got the name of J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School changed."

I shook his hand, thanked him and then told him that he must have missed the news about what actually transpired the night the issue came before the City of Richmond School Board. He conceded that he had been out-of-town for the past two weeks, but said he never imagined that the name change would be voted down.

I explained that I was the only -- the only -- board member who voted to open the process to change the school's name.

"The only?" he asked.

"Yup, the ONLY," I answered, adding that the vote wasn't even close: 5 to 1 with three abstentions.  My colleagues earned distinction that night as Profiles in Cowardice."

"Who were the five?" I told him: Dave Ballard (1st-District), Dr. Larry Olanrewaju (4th-District), Gail Townes (6th-District), Joan Mimms (8th-District) and Gene Mason (9th-District. The abstentions were Charles Nance (2nd-District), Steve Johnson (5th-District) and Reginald Malone (7th-District).

As I ticked off the names, he shook his head sadly.

He wanted to know if I had said anything to my colleagues.

I laughed. "Of course, I did ... I told them their vote was a demonstration of cowardice in the face of the Confederacy and evidence of a shameful fear to face the future."

He smiled and gave me a "high five." As we parted, he told me to hold my "head high and walk tall -- you were trying to do the right thing ... Only in Richmond, Virginia could you have a school board comprised of a majority of Black people vote to keep the school named after a Confederate. Only in Richmond."

Indeed. The experience taught me plenty about the black and white communities in Richmond. I was personally attacked in radio advertisements paid for by the Sons of the Confederacy. Astoundingly, this group -- named for people who had seceded from the union -- questioned MY patriotism.

I received two death threats; one from a drunk woman who self-identified as white and told me I needed to "eat sh** and die," if I didn't go back where I came from and stop getting people all worked up.  I inspired her to hang up on me when I allowed as to how I understood her resistance to naming the school after a black man and suggested instead that we should name it after Abraham Lincoln.

 The other threat came from a courtly gentleman who self-identified as black and told me I needed to leave "well enough alone." He said that his grandchild attended J.E.B. Stuart and promised that if anything bad happened to his grandchild or any other child for the matter, that he would "come for me."

I discussed the matter with Iris Page, the principal at J.E.B. Stuart at the time and with my friend and mentor, the late Oliver W. Hill, Esq., one of the lawyers who successfully argued the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Both agreed that unless the School Board was willing to stand with me, maybe it would be best to leave the question alone and approach it at a later time. We also agreed that we would not report the death threats since it would simply inspire copycat crazies.

So, now, it seems the only relevant question today is this:

Will the current School Board have the requisite courage to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School? Will any Richmond School Board ever have the courage?