The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has initiated a worldwide pushback against the white privilege that has dominated American society for well over two centuries. In Virginia, this has reference to statues of Christopher Columbus, Stonewall Jackson and Williams C. Wickham, the latter two officers in the Confederate army, being taken down. The Woodrow Wilson Building at Princeton University is being renamed since, unfortunately, President Wilson was an open and politically powerful racist.
Locally, there is something we can do at Patrick Henry Community College.
As is well-known, Patrick Henry was a slaveholder as well as a lawyer and a legislator. There is an argument that the college was named for Patrick County and Henry County, which is true insofar as it goes, but both counties were named after Patrick Henry, a slaveholder.
Perhaps, a change of name is in order for the college and some of its buildings in a diverse community like Martinsville ,which has a substantial Black population. I would note that Franklin County-born local educator Booker T. Washington, who spent his life promoting education and social justice, has no Virginia Community College named after him.
Less well-known is that on the campus of Patrick Henry Community College, three campus buildings are named for prominent public defenders of segregation: West Hall, Stone Hal, and Philpott Hall.
Francis West in particular, chairman of the board of Patrick Henry when it opened, publicly fought against the admission and matriculation of Patrick Henry’s first Black student, Hazel Adams, in 1962. Her experience at Patrick Henry caused her to drop out after only her first day of class.
State Senator William F. Stone was also a board member and also opposed Ms. Adams’ matriculation. Again, there is an argument that all three of these men were instrumental in establishing the college so keeping these halls named after them is right.
According to that logic, however, the statue of Stonewall Jackson on Monument Avenue in Richmond ought to remain to honor one of Virginia Military Institute’s most famous educators.
This argument is unconvincing to a generation demanding more social justice and much less white privilege and whitewashing of history. It should not happen that any college continue its educational mission by inviting local Black students into the college community and asking them to sit within buildings named for white men who did not respect Black citizens’ rights to an integrated education.
We can do better. We can rename the buildings at Patrick henry Community College and in so doing build more solid bridges to the diverse communities that comprise Martinsville and Henry County.
It is a small step, it is a symbolic step, but it is a necessary step.
Shawn McAvoy is an assistant professor of history and religion at Patrick Henry Community College.