I know this is not the most pressing issue in Prince William County schools, but I must clear up misconceptions and misrepresentations about the Gainesville High School naming.
When we voted to name the county’s 13th high school “Gainesville High School” back in June, I did not know Thomas B. Gaines, Gainesville’s namesake, was a constable and a slave owner.
At the time of his death in 1856, Gaines had eight slaves: Bill, Henry, Lucian, Margurite, Martha, Rose, Stephan and Wallace, according to Prince William County property records, which are a matter of public record.
Gaines also served as an elected constable from 1833 to 1837 and again after 1845. A constable was a law-enforcement agent who served under the sheriff to enforce slave laws and all laws on the books at the time.
I have no issue with the Gainesville area’s good people, nor was I ever asking that EVERYTHING that bears the name Gainesville be renamed. I understand the people inherited the name. I understand other people find no fault with the name, and I support their right to have that opinion. I also understand the name is derivate, but in my mind we cannot dismiss derivatives. For example, would we dismiss a school named Wallaceville if the derivative was the name of George Wallace?
I, too, initially voted in favor of naming the new high school for Gainesville but changed my mind for reasons that I feel are important to share with the public. I want the community to know that :
I personally do not support continuing to place this name on a school building.
I do not believe I am harming anyone when I say do not want to vote for that name, as I am a descendant of slaves who lived through segregation, who was not allowed to attend the White high school directly in front of my home, who marched in the Civil Rights movement -- including the march to desegregate the same bowling alley that later became the site of the Orangeburg, S.C., massacre -- and that I was jailed for my actions.
I feel strongly that the community, especially the students, had a right to know of our findings immediately and not six or seven months later. We knew on June 11.
My Civil Rights story is archived in the Library of Congress. This influences my thinking daily. Because of whom I am, and because of my prior experiences in the segregated South, I cannot vote for any name that incorporates Mr. Gaines' name. While it may not be a big deal to others, and I respect that, I ask others to respect that it is a big deal to me.
All I wanted was the right to remove my vote consenting to this name. At no time did I contact othe school board members asking them to change their vote. I JUST NEEDED TO CHANGE MINE.
Our school board’s regulation for naming new schools says preference should be given to educators, especially those from Prince William County. Mrs. Lillian Orlich, who retired in 2017 at age 89 after a 67-year career as a school counselor, was among the individuals whose names were suggested for the new school. Ms. Orlich was known to arrive at Osbourn Park High School as early as 3 a.m. and was featured on the cover of the National Education Association’s magazine.
When the school board asked for public input on the school name, Ms. Orlich received 105 votes, second only to the late Officer Ashley Guindon, who was fatally shot in 2016 on her first day on the job with the Prince William County Police Department. Officer Guindon’s name received 210 votes. The name Gainesville received only 29 votes – 181 fewer votes than that of Guindon and 76 fewer than that of Orlich.
The day after the school board voted to approved the name “Gainesville High School,” we learned about Mr. Gaines. We did not discuss our new-found knowledge nor share it with the public.
I want my name to be removed in support of Gainesville, so I asked for an opportunity to take my vote away from Gainesville and give it to Mrs. Orlich. I also wanted to inform the public of the basis for the decision.
When I pursued the matter further, formally asking for it to be placed on the agenda, Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef accused me of an ethics violation. I reminded him and other board members that I was within my rights under Robert's Rules of Order to request a new vote since I voted with the majority.
The local NAACP asked Dr. Lateef in November to place the naming on the agenda for discussion. The Prince William County Democratic Committee and the Democratic Committee’s Black Caucus also asked the board to reconsider.
When the naming appeared on the school board’s Jan. 6 agenda, Dr. Lateef did not mention the requests from the other groups, nor did he tell me that he had placed my name as the sole individual requesting a discussion and vote for renaming.
The item came up for a vote between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. I told the board I wanted the public to hear my reasoning and knew few were watching the meeting at that time.
I asked the matter to be tabled so I could present it at the next meeting. The board did not vote for that motion. They did not vote to support my request despite their decision to delay discussion on the “Return to Learn” plan until the Jan. 13 meeting because of the lack of an audience at that hour.
Knowing that I could not achieve the goal of making my position known and feeling that I was not given a meaningful opportunity, I decided not to present my arguments at 3 a.m. I indicated I would seek another forum. This is it.
I felt then and still feel strongly that the community and the upcoming students have the right to know the origin of the name “Gainesville,” and now that of the new high school, whether the name is changed or not.
And I cannot forget that we are placing a slave-owner’s name on a $160 million building, one of the most expensive schools in Virginia.
The writer is the Occoquan representative on the Prince William County School Board.