Alexandria, VA

Virginia’s biggest high school is named for Thomas Chambliss Williams, and on Thursday Alexandria got its first of three discussions on the avowed segregationist.

The three-part community read-in discussion is part of the public engagement process to rename T.C. Williams High School. The school is best known around the world for the 2000 movie Remember the Titans, which focused on its 1971 state championship-winning varsity football team that found greatness by working through racial adversity.

“He represented racist beliefs of the Jim Crow era,” said Kennetra Wood, the Alexandria City Public Schools executive director of alternative programs and equity. “He was a stark segregationist  who used policy to block students’ access and opportunity.”

Douglas S. Reed, a professor of government at Georgetown University, presented documentation that Williams actively discouraged and prevented Black students from attending previously all-white schools.

Williams was 39 years old when he became superintendent in 1933. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute, served in World War I and didn’t like to be called by his first name or have his photo taken, Reed said.

Williams required that all Black students wanting admission to previously all-white schools to go through an application process. Only 75 Black students (about 3%) were allowed to transfer to formerly white schools by the time Williams announced his retirement in 1962, and that was three years after the city officially desegregated schools.

In one case, Williams responded to a petition from a seventh grade Black boy by saying the student would find it “a frustrating and discouraging experience to pass from a position of prestige in one place to a position of low rating in another… It does not appear from the record that this boy has either the ambition of the spirit to enable him to compete successfully with even the lowest of the seventh grade [at the white school].”

Williams was also investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for firing Blois Hundley, a cook at Lyles Crouch Elementary School. Hundley joined the lawsuit seeking to desegregate ACPS, and Williams was “outraged” when he found out about her participation, Reed said.

“He fired her,” Reed said. “He called her participation in the lawsuit a slap in the face. He took the legal fight as a personal insult.”

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. said that the read-ins are important community conversations.

The only way we can figure out how to resolve and to change the narrative is by knowing it, and I love the fact that this discussion was very raw and real,” Hutchings said. “Naming our school after him says a lot about where the city was at that time, that we were embracing a segregationist mentality in that we were a very divisive city. We have to own our good, our bad and our ugly.”

The next read-in will be held at 7 p.m. on October 1, followed by the third read-in on October 8.

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