Alison Landsberg Discusses Renaming Schools in Henrico

Professor Alison Landsberg was recently interviewed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the renaming of Harry F. Byrd Middle School in Henrico to Quioccasin. Landsberg is an expert in the field of memory studies, and author most recently of Engaging the Past: Mass Culture and the Production of Historical Knowledge.

From her interview:

Alison Landsberg, an associate professor in the Departments of History and Art History and Cultural Studies at George Mason University, said name selections create a narrative that present “which individuals and events a community, state or nation ‘ought’ to remember.”

“These official moves to nail down memory often come at times of upheaval. ... The moment of school integration was just such a freighted and highly contested moment,” she said.

In some ways, Landsberg said, the naming of schools and roads, like Lee Highway in Northern Virginia and Jefferson Davis Highway, is more “insidious” than the creation of monuments and other memorials because of its subtlety.

“It is a way of authorizing or legitimizing the importance of a particular figure as part of the landscape,” she said. “In other words, it legitimizes a particular narrative about the past. A memorial, at least, announces itself as an act of commemoration.”

A petition over the summer started by Hermitage High School student Jordan Chapman amassed hundreds of signatures in favor of renaming the school, and speakers in favor of the change overwhelmed the opposition in two meetings and a public hearing on the matter that the School Board held.

“These public discussions remind us of the legacies we are sometimes unwittingly endorsing through the names of the institutions we visit regularly,” Landsberg said. “The discussion around renaming has the effect of making those monuments newly visible and forcing people to either condemn or defend what they stand for.”