Pressure mounts to change name of Halifax County school named for slave owner, honor Black HBCU champion instead

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Co authored by Rodney D. Pierce and Justin Parmenter

A movement is afoot in Halifax County–birthplace of the Leandro lawsuit and one of North Carolina’s most economically distressed counties–to change the name of William R Davie Middle STEM Academy.  An overwhelming 93 percent of the school’s population are students of color (77% Black, 10% Indigenous/American Indian, 4% Multi-racial, 2% Hispanic). 

A petition started by 2019 North Carolina Council for the Social Studies Teacher of the Year and Halifax County native Rodney D. Pierce requests that the Halifax County Schools Board of Education change the name to that of county native Dr. James E. Cheek Sr.  The petition currently has over 1300 signatures.

William R. Davie is considered to be one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.  He served as Governor of North Carolina and helped found the University of North Carolina. 

According to census documents, Davie also enslaved Africans to work his plantations and increase his personal wealth.  The 1790 United States census shows Davie owning 36 slaves:

The 1820 census recorded Davie–then living in Chester County, South Carolina–as owning 116 slaves to operate his cotton plantation:

In addition to enslaving Black people, Davie consistently fought to strengthen the institution of chattel slavery in the United States.  In 1787 he threatened a Southern delegation walkout at the Constitutional Convention, insisting that “the business of the convention was at an end” if the enslaved were not counted as part of state populations. His insistence laid the groundwork for the Three-Fifths Clause of the original US Constitution that counted human property as 3/5s of a human being, allowing the slaveholding South more representation in the US House of Representatives. 

Without this influence, historians have cited that important pro-slavery and anti-Indigenous legislation wouldn’t have passed, including the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (allowed Missouri to join the Union as a slave state), the Indian Removal Act of 1830 (the forced displacement and genocide of tens of thousands of Indigenous people on the Trail of Tears to land west of the Mississippi River), the Compromise of 1850 (included the Fugitive Slave Act that required citizens and officials of free states to return all enslaved freedom seekers to owners upon capture and allowing slavery in Utah, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia), the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 (created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska while opening the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain territory to slavery). 

Founding Father James Madison, himself a slave owner, came up with the idea of the Electoral College based off of the Three-Fifths Compromise. Instead of “direct election” — what we’d call the popular vote — which Madison actually thought was best, he created a system where presidential electors based on the number of members of Congress a state had would decide the Presidency, which gave the South a significant advantage for decades. So, Davie had a role in establishing the controversial system of electing the president which persists to this day. 

In 1794, during his time in the state legislature, Davie introduced a bill entitled “An Act to prevent the owners of slaves from hiring to them their time, to make compensation to patrols, and to restrain the abuses committed by free negroes and mulattoes.” This legislation permitted patrollers to “inflict a punishment, not exceeding fifteen lashes, on all slaves they may find off their owner’s plantation, or travelling on the Sabbath, or other unreasonable time, without a proper permit or pass.” At Davie’s hands, not only would the enslaved in NC not be able to earn money when they had free time, but they would be whipped if found at any time without proper identification. 

Despite his reprehensible history, Davie’s name adorns a school where the majority of the people who pass through it daily – whether students, employees, parents, etc. – would not have been recognized by him as fellow human beings. 

It may have made sense to name the school after Davie when it was dedicated in 1941 and all those who passed through it were White. That was nearly 80 years ago. 

Pierce and the other signers of the change the name petition are calling on the HCS school board to rename William R Davie Middle STEM Academy for Dr. Cheek. 

Born in Roanoke Rapids, Cheek served as president of Howard University for 20 years (1969-1989), transforming the HBCU into “The Black Harvard.” Afterwards, he served as president emeritus.

The petition states “A passionate advocate for HBCUs, Cheek befriended Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, becoming an advisor to each on Black institutions of higher learning. In 1980, Cheek was named Washingtonian of the Year and in 1983, President Reagan bestowed upon him the nation’s highest civilian honor:  The Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“The name of a prominent Black educator, who was a titan in Black higher education, is better suited to a building where predominantly Black children learn and Black adults work than the name of a slave-owning White supremacist who exploited Black people for wealth and political power.” 

Dr. Cheek’s family has given their blessing to the change.

If you’d like to sign the petition to change the name of William R Davie Middle STEM Academy you can find it here.

Email addresses for the Halifax County Board of Education are here.

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2 thoughts on “Pressure mounts to change name of Halifax County school named for slave owner, honor Black HBCU champion instead

  1. Thank you Justin for enlightening me on our state history. Being from Ohio I honestly didn’t know these facts!

  2. Knowledge is power,let us continue to arm our minds with knowledge .
    Thank you Mr.Pierce for empowering us.

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