The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education voted 8-0 Tuesday to rename Zebulon B. Vance High School in honor of civil rights attorney Julius L. Chambers. Board member Jennifer De La Jara exited the meeting early and did not render a vote.
“Names and symbols should reflect our values,” CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston said during the virtual meeting. “They speak to who we are and what we aspire to do. Mr. Chambers was a major figure in civil rights locally and nationally, bringing cases that shaped our laws to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
In June, Winston announced a full review of school names across the district to eliminate “a racist, hateful and painful past” that looms over the community.
Zebulon Baird Vance, a lawyer and Confederate military officer who was elected governor of North Carolina twice and served in the U.S. Senate, owned enslaved people and advocated against anti-discrimination laws, Winston said during a June 24 meeting.
“Mr. Chambers’ life and legacy represent the very best of who we are,” Board Chair Elyse Dashew said. “He worked to make our county, state and country a more just and fairer place for all of us. His name on the high school will remind students, and the rest of us, that social justice is achievable, and we share responsibility for making it happen.”
Chambers founded the first integrated law firm in the state and, in 1971, helped fast-track integration in schools by winning Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. The case established school busing programs to help desegregate public schools. Chambers died in 2013.
Board member Lenora Shipp, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Chambers, said it’s a great honor to have Vance High School be renamed in her childhood neighbor’s honor.
“Living in a neighborhood with him, it was wonderful to see his work,” she recalled.
Winston made the recommendation to the board to rename Vance High School in the late civil rights attorney’s honor.
“I believe it’s our responsibility as parents, caregivers and family members to share our history so when opportunities like this arise, there’s never a question,” the superintendent said.
A committee made up of students, parents, staff and alumni assisted in the renaming process. The committee came up with three potential names for their high school. The three options were:
- Julius L. Chambers High School
- Queen City High School
- University City High School
Winston said Julius L. Chambers High School was the communities’ first choice, while University City High School came in second and Queen City High School garnered the least amount of support.
Board member Ruby Jones made the motion, and she called Chambers one of the “greatest civil rights lawyers of our time.”
“If it weren’t for Julius Chambers, we would not be where we are as a school district,” Jones said.
School officials anticipate the high school’s new name and the related branding, including sports uniforms, to be in place for the 2021-22 school year, according to the school’s renaming website.
Critiquing the renaming process
Denada Jackson, an alumna who was a member of the first four-year graduating class of Vance High School, critiqued the renaming process. She and a friend participated in the renaming process over the summer. She shared several concerns about the process.
For one, she believed alumni should’ve been targeted, as they are a major stakeholder group.
“By calling out alumni, you make it known that we play a major role in the process,” Jackson said.
She expressed that the School Name Advisory Committee members should’ve managed the process versus participating in it. Following three public meetings, a September survey allowed students and community members to weigh in on three name choices voted by the committee. Jackson says the community didn’t have a say in what the top choices would be.
“Community participation was just not even needed,” she said.
There was one original Vance High School teacher on the committee, but no original students, which also confused Jackson.
In the end, Jackson doesn’t want others to go through the same renaming process, calling it “extremely peculiar.” While she loved and admired Chambers, she wanted to rename the school in honor of an individual who had a personal connection with the school.
Winston said the committee had four subcommittees that consisted of:
- government and oversight
- community engagement
- historical research
All the subcommittees had information on their websites, they publicized the process and encouraged participation through a variety of strategies including social media, Winston told the board.
“It was a robust process,” he said.
Board members Rhonda Cheek and Gabriel Schuhl did ask Winston and CMS to “sure up the process” for the sake of transparency.