Roanoke Valley Schools Need To Re-Think Names

The worst of the lot: William Byrd
James Breckinridge
William Fleming
James Madison

While we’re having some serious discussions about which war hero statues need to be removed, let’s look close to home at which schools in (or near) the Roanoke Valley need to be re-named.

We can start, of course, with Washington & Lee University in Lexington which was named for two slave-owners, one of which was the leading Confederate general during the Civil War. But we all know about Generals Washington and Lee.

I doubt George Washington’s legacy will get much criticism because he was “the father of the country,” but if we’re going to tear down statues of slave owners, his probably should be among the first to go.

Let’s talk about those notables under the radar in most places, but who remind us daily of where we came from.

In Roanoke City and Roanoke County William Ruffner Middle School, James Breckinridge Middle School, William Fleming High School, Patrick Henry High School, William Byrd High School, and James Madison Middle School are all named for slave-holders.

Patrick Henry

The controversial Stonewall Jackson Middle School name was changed a year ago to John Fishwick Middle School because Jackson was a Civil War general. (Jackson also illegally taught young black children to read, which is noted on a stained glass window of an African-American church in Roanoke. Fishwick was a noted Roanoke Valley businessman and scion of a prominent and honorable family.)

William Henry Ruffner was a reluctant slave owner who lobbied against it. He was the designer and first superintendent of Virginia’s public school system and principal of the State Female Normal School (Longwood University). He was born in Lexington and was a graduate of what became Washington and Lee University. During the Civil War he was a Presbyterian minister and farmer in Rockingham County. Ruffner owned slaves, and he advocated the gradual emancipation and colonization of Virginia’s slaves.

William Ruffner

Of all those names on schools above, probably the worst was William Byrd, who not only owned slaves but also did “vast” business in procuring and selling them, according to

Worthy of dishonorable mention is Woodrow Wilson Junior High. President Wilson could not own slaves because it was outlawed during the Civil War, but he was a noted racist, born and raised in Staunton.

Lucy Addison Middle School is the only local school named for an honorable human being. She was an African-American educator in Roanoke who lived quite a notable life.

By admin

Dan Smith is an award-winning journalist in Roanoke, Va., and a member of the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame. He is an author, photographer, essayist, father and grandfather. Co-founder of Valley Business FRONT magazine and founder of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. On Advisory Board of New River Voice.

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