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Albemarle School Board renames Meriwether Lewis Elementary

Meriwether Lewis Elementary School in Albemarle County will be officially renamed Ivy Elementary School after a unanimous school board vote Thursday evening.

The decision was made in spite of a community survey conducted late last year that found an overwhelming majority — about 85% — of parents, students, alumni and county residents preferred keeping the name of the famous explorer and native of Albemarle County.

The school’s new name will take effect July 1.

That change will come at a “modest cost” of about $2,000, according to schools spokesman Phil Giaramita, just the amount needed for a new sign.

The decision to rename schools, roads, parks and other public spaces that have been named after people who owned or enslaved other people has become a contentious issue nationwide as well as in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, home to Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and several others who benefited from the work of the enslaved. The renaming of schools is part of a broader movement, that has included protests and even violence, in the wake of Charlottesville and Albemarle County’s decisions in the mid-2010s to remove the area’s monuments to those who protected the institution of slavery, culminating in the deadly Unite the Right riot of 2017.

Brandon Lindsay, who served on a special committee charged with reviewing the name of Meriwether Lewis Elementary School, expressed his disappointment in the school board decision at Thursday’s meeting.

He told the board that the review amounted to a “smear campaign” against Lewis and that the committee was always going to rename the school without considering public input.

“It was not a name evaluation committee,” Lindsay told the board. “We quickly learned from Dr. Haas that we are a name change committee.”

Only 9.13%, or 38 respondents, to the community survey issued Nov. 14-21 said Ivy, the name of the surrounding community, was their first choice for the school’s new name. Of the 416 polled, 354 respondents, roughly 85%, said Meriwether Lewis remained their top choice for the school’s name.

Eleven respondents favored the name Bluebird, the school’s mascot; eight who preferred Owensville, the name of the road the school sits on; and five who voted for some version of Discovery, Expedition or Explorer Elementary School.

Schools Superintendent Matt Haas proposed the Ivy name to the school board after the special committee, organized by Haas and school Principal Jennifer Underwood, was unable to narrow down a list of potential names to fewer than three after several votes.

Based on input from the community survey, the committee – which included Underwood, Assistant Principal Laura Morris, a teacher at the school, four current parents at the school and five community members without children at the school – sent a list of proposed names including Ivy, Owensville and Meriwether Lewis.

School board members at Thursday’s meeting expressed frustration with the renaming process, specifically the community survey.

“I’m not sure that we’re clear on our renaming policy,” said board member Ellen Osborne. “My understanding was we preferred geographic locations, geographic concepts or values.”

Under those guidelines, names such Bluebird, Discovery, Expedition, Explorer and Meriwether Lewis would be disqualified.

“I question the value of [the survey] as it’s been done,” said board member Kate Acuff, who said survey respondents were provided little information on Lewis and his history.

Survey participants were provided biographical information on Lewis. In an earlier community survey of 396 conducted Oct. 24-Nov. 2, 94.1% of respondents said they were familiar with Lewis and his life.

Karen Waters, director of community education with Albemarle County Public Schools and the committee’s project manager, said the biographical information amounted to little more than a “blurb” of “what we’ve all been taught to believe.”

The school board decided on Thursday that, in the future, survey respondents would be given more information about the figures schools are named after.

Lewis is best known as the leader of an expedition west between 1804 and 1806 exploring the newly acquired corners of the U.S. after the Louisiana Purchase. He made that journey alongside William Clark of Ladysmith, Clark’s enslaved body servant York and their guide, the Lemhi Shoshone woman Sacagawea.

But Lewis’ history and connection to Albemarle County began long before that.

Lewis, born in Ivy in 1774, spent the early years of his life at his family’s plantation, Locust Hill, near the site of the future elementary school that would bear his name.

After his father died of pneumonia in 1779, Lewis legally inherited Locust Hill and the 24 enslaved people there, according to research from the naming committee. The 5-year-old, however, took no part in plantation management, which was run by overseers and guardians instead.

After his mother remarried, Lewis and his family moved to Georgia.

“It was Cherokees territory, and there was much resentment of encroaching white settlers in their territory,” Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society librarian Miranda Burnett told The Daily Progress. “Lewis seemed to be a champion for the Cherokees over the other settlers.”

Lewis and his family returned to Virginia when he was 13 to pursue an education. When Lewis turned 20, instead of staying on and running Locust Hill, he opted to enlist in the Virginia militia and help put down the ongoing Whiskey Rebellion.

“It appears the role of planter wasn’t Lewis’s cup of tea,” Burnett said.

While Army officers frequently had enslaved people join them as servants, Lewis chose not to bring any of Locust Hill’s enslaved population, according to Burnett.

Lewis made the same decision in 1804 on the expedition west, in contrast to Clark who brought the enslaved York along with them on the journey.

Along that journey, Lewis also made a number of decisions that granted certain liberties to his Black and Indigenous companions, such as giving York and Sacagawea a vote in deciding where the team would camp and permitting York to carry a firearm.

After the party returned from the expedition, Lewis was named governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory. Once again, Lewis declined to bring any of the enslaved population at Locust Hill with him to his new posting. Instead, he hired a free Black man named John Pernier to accompany him, according to the school division’s biography on Lewis.

Nevertheless, it is Burnett’s opinion that it would be impossible for the county school division to retain Lewis’ name for a school.

“Lewis and his family … benefitted from the exploitation of Black bodies, whether it was a few dozen or in the hundreds,” Burnett said.

Burnett is not alone in that assessment.

The county school division’s name review process was the product of swell of public appeal urging governments to remove the names of and monuments to individuals who exploited men and women of color.

Lewis died under mysterious circumstances in 1809. He suffered two gunshot wounds, but historians today disagree whether Lewis was murdered or died by suicide, said Burnett. Lewis had previously attempted suicide.

Although he had been heralded as a hero upon his return from his expedition, friends and family noted he suffered from extreme loneliness, according to the “Encyclopedia of the Lewis and Clark Expedition” by Elin Woodger and Brandon Toropov.

In a letter to a friend two years prior to his death he wrote, “I never felt less like a hero than at the present moment.”

As for Pernier, at the time of his employer’s death Pernier was owed back wages for his work. Pernier traveled to Monticello and requested payment from Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson denied the request and provided Pernier $10 for travel to Washington, where Pernier resided before his employment under Lewis. Pernier died by suicide after returning to Washington.

Albemarle County Public Schools began its review of school names in January 2020. So far, the division has reviewed eight schools and changed five, including Meriwether Lewis Elementary School. Paul H. Cale Elementary became Mountain View during the summer of 2020, Mortimer Sutherland Middle School became Lakeside, Community Public Charter was renamed Community Lab in the summer of 2021 and Jack Jouett Middle School became Journey as of July 2022.

Haas did not say at Thursday’s meeting which school was next to be reviewed, and Giaramita told The Daily Progress he did not know.


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