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Albemarle County to rename Agnor-Hurt Elementary School despite pushback

Albemarle County School Board’s decision last month to rename Agnor-Hurt Elementary School left some members of the community, in a word, hurt.

“Mr. Hurt was a beautiful man,” said one Albemarle County resident during public comment at a school board meeting on April 11. “I have to say the entire board sitting here on a pedestal has passed unfair judgment on a fine man who they never intimately knew.”

“How would any of you feel where you or your family were investigated with a fine-tooth comb and then trashed publicly as you have done to Mr. Hurt and his family with this sketchy, poorly advertised vote?” she added.

At the board’s March 28 meeting, board members were presented with the findings of a review conducted on the school’s two namesakes: Guy T. Agnor, a former public works director in Charlottesville, and Benjamin Franklin Hurt, a former principal of Albemarle High School. While no skeletons were found in Agnor’s closet, some red flags were raised regarding Hurt’s background.

The task force reviewing the county’s school names found that during Hurt’s tenure, from 1954 until 1984, the high school’s booster club held minstrel shows to raise funds. Minstrel shows have a long, and racist, history in America; it was not uncommon for White minstrel performers to don blackface and depict caricatures of Black men, women and children.

In addition to these shows, the task force also found photographs in the school’s yearbooks seen as “troublesome by current standards” depicting individuals in blackface and others carrying Confederate battle flags.

It’s unclear if Hurt was a vocal proponent of these displays of Confederate imagery and racist caricatures, but they did happen on his watch.

Once it was made aware of the fundraisers and photographs, the school board unanimously voted to remove Hurt’s name from the elementary school. Effective July 1, the school will simply be known as Agnor Elementary School.

Though the decision was already made by April 11, several members of the community, including former students and colleagues of Hurt, attended the school board meeting that night to voice their disappointment and disgust.

While all those who spoke out during the public hearing portion of the meeting were White, they spoke of Hurt’s acceptance of all people, telling the board that “no one is perfect, including you before us.” A former student who graduated from Albemarle High School during Hurt’s time said that the school held its first Black History Month program under Hurt and that the principal encouraged two young Black girls to join the school’s previously all-White cheerleading squad.

The board is unlikely to reconsider its decision on the matter as both Albemarle County and neighboring Charlottesville have said they no longer plan to name any school after people.

Albemarle County’s school name review began in 2018 in the wake of the decision to remove Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County’s Confederate memorials. The review was meant to create alignment between individual schools’ names and the school division’s values of “excellence, wellness, family and community and equity.” Since then, six of the 14 schools have changed names. Agnor-Hurt was the last of the county schools selected for review.

Hurt’s is not the only name that has been removed in spite of community pushback.

There was considerable criticism of the decision to change the name of Meriwether Lewis Elementary School to Ivy Elementary School last year. Lewis, an Albemarle County native, is best known for his expedition into the new American frontier with partner William Clark between 1804 and 1806. Lewis was often an advocate for Native American rights and avoided any business with his family’s plantation when he could. During their journey west, he encouraged York, Clark’s enslaved body servant, and Sacagawea, their Lemhi Shoshone guide, to vote with him and Clark on important decisions. Years later, during his various government postings, Lewis made a point of hiring freed Black help instead of enlisting enslaved laborers.

This was not enough to spare him, and the school board opted to swap his name with that of his hometown.

In the words of Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society librarian Miranda Burnett, “Lewis and his family … benefitted from the exploitation of Black bodies, whether it was a few dozen or in the hundreds." And that was enough.

During the debate over Lewis’ name, both members of the school board and the public raised concerns that the review process had not been handled as well as it could have been. In several cases, community surveys found that most people did not want to see the schools’ names changed, and in some cases, the historical information provided on the namesakes was not as clear as its intended audiences had expected it to be.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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