HANOVER COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — During a May 9 meeting, the Hanover School Board chose “Ashland Elementary” as the name for an elementary school that will open its doors to students in the 2024-25 school year. The choice comes after a passionate two-month-long debate among the community on how to properly honor history.

Clay and Gandy

Plans to consolidate Henry Clay and John M. Gandy Elementary Schools in Hanover County were first announced in 2018. Students from both schools would join together in a new school located in the City of Ashland, which will open during the 2024-25 school year.

In mid-March, the Hanover County School Board appointed a committee with representatives from each district to tackle a unique challenge — choosing a name for the new elementary school.

Students, families, staff, and community members were encouraged to submit their input for the new name, and from there, a fierce debate began on how best to honor history while respecting existing school rules.

What’s in a name?

Previously, there was discussion to combine the names of the two previous schools to call the new school Gandy-Clay, which raised criticism among the community.

Henry Clay was a former United States Secretary of State and slave owner who was born in Hanover County. John M. Gandy was the third president of Virginia State University.

In March, the NAACP Hanover County branch suggested keeping the John M. Gandy Elementary School name for the new school. This suggestion was also supported by many community members and current and former Gandy students.

However, this suggestion was made more difficult by a school policy first adopted in 2000 that does not allow new schools or unnamed school buildings to be named after a person.

The Hanover NAACP also offered Berkleytown Elementary as a second suggestion, which would share the name of a historic African American community in Ashland.

Ashland Elementary

The committee ultimately presented the name Berkleytown Elementary as their suggestion for the new school’s name during a business meeting on April 11, and the board moved to vote on the name on Tuesday, May 9. But this proved to not be an easy vote.

The Berkleytown name was shot down in a close 3-4 vote. Instead, the board ultimately proposed and then approved an entirely different name — Ashland Elementary School.

A heated discussion followed, with board members acknowledging that some community members would still be unhappy with the name, but felt that naming the school after its geographic location was the safest option.

The board also reiterated that they were not “renaming” either school but instead naming a new building, and Gandy and Clay would retain their old names until the students were moved and the schools were closed down.

The meeting did not even end before the decision faced public backlash. At the end of the meeting, one attendee spoke up and said she believed the renaming decision was not made in good faith and it was “retributory” and “vengeful.”

This is not the first time Hanover Schools has faced controversary for changing school names. In 2020, the board voted 4-3 to change the names of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School. The schools were changed to Mechanicsville High School and Bell Creek Middle School, respectively.