I recently read an article highlighting a young student who has been working to change the name of her former middle school. In her eyes, the school’s reputation was tarnished by its namesake: an esteemed former Virginia governor and U.S. senator who has been honored across the state in highways, schools, and memorials.
Harry Flood Byrd, Sr., along with his children and grandchildren, greatly impacted the state of Virginia and the nation in their political work, community service, and adventurous expeditions. Miles away from the young girl’s middle school is a business college named for Byrd’s son, Harry F. Byrd, Jr., and another middle school, named for his admired brother, Richard E. Byrd, a naval Medal of Honor recipient who became the first man to fly to the South Pole. These men were truly the epitome of committed citizens, dedicating their lives to their country and their families. The community they served still sees the effects of their leadership: the town’s newspaper is still owned by the Byrd family – a family that makes appearances at schools and other ceremonies as treasured guests.
Harry F. Byrd, Sr., a man whose ancestors included the infamous Pocahontas, who contributed to leading Virginia out of its crippling debt of the early twentieth century, and whose triumphs are still studied in schools across the state, is at risk of losing his honor over one trivial societal opinion: he was opposed to the desegregation of public schools.
Mind you, Byrd’s opinion was prominent pre-Brown v. Board of Education. Byrd passed away a mere decade after the landmark case hit the Supreme Court. At this time, society and U.S. government in general was widely against integration of public schools; though Byrd was a liberal and democrat, he was no different.
This does not excuse the fact that as a society, we have moved forward from this belief system. Of course we do not still condone segregation; we realized our wrongdoing and have moved forward. But just like every controversial decision, hindsight is 20/20. Fifty years prior, politicians debated slavery – but we realized our wrongs and moved forward. This should not put great shame on the legacies of leaders from the time: they merely believed what they were raised to believe. If you have lived your whole life believing that something was acceptable, it can be difficult to change that mindset, especially in older individuals.
Finally, we as a nation agreed to change a policy that was obviously a problem – but not after extensive persuasion and debate. Perhaps fifty years from now, those who opposed the allowance of gay marriage will be seen in such a shameful light; but is that fair? Society was not ready for this advancement until quite recently. The opposition was merely a generalized opinion. Good or bad, it is how society felt as a whole. Why shame a single person for the views of millions?
Hundreds, if not thousands, of cases are arising that involve renaming buildings and other
memorials because suddenly, certain views matter. The community that the Byrd family touched so deeply, Winchester, Va. (home of Richard E. Byrd Middle School and the Harry F. Byrd, Jr. School of Business at Shenandoah University), recently debated over changing its city seal, because the Confederate flag was featured on the image. The flag, which stirred up a nationwide debate over its true meaning (Pro-slavery? Anti-American?), was seen as too controversial to be shown on the official logo of the city. A town with a rich American historical importance – the home of George Washington’s office, and the site of several key Civil War Battles, to name a few key events – was at risk of losing part of its legacy. Winchester’s residents represent proud descendants of Confederate soldiers and leaders, yet still characterize Americans as diverse and accepting. The past may not be acceptable as the future, but it is still valuable as a legacy and a history.
From colleges changing school names to the renaming of Old Dixie Highway in Florida, it seems we are trying to run away from our past. We honored individuals for their great accomplishments, but now we are taking these tributes away. Must we scrutinize each leader for each of their faults? Is there a perfect person for which we can name our buildings? I think not.
The future cannot exist without the past. America has such a rich history of overcoming struggle and compromising in controversy, but lately, we have not shown these traits. We want to escape the past, as if we are ashamed of it. We cannot think this way. We must be proud of our history – the good and the bad – and continue to honor the leaders and symbols that helped shape us into the nation that we are today.
So let us be proud to attend schools named for the Byrd family, and let us memorialize our great leaders without shame. Otherwise, we will be stuck renaming our buildings every decade – and that would be terribly tedious.