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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

Name Will Change, But Charlotte's Vance High Has Roots In Racial History Of CMS

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' Zebulon Vance High isn't likely to have that name much longer. But the name and the school are deeply entangled with the history of race and education in Charlotte. 

All CMS board members have indicated they’re ready to remove the nameof a North Carolina governor who owned slaves, fought for the Confederacy and spoke against integration and racial equality. The name change is on Tuesday's agenda.

"You know, Zebulon B. Vance, he was a Confederate officer, and his history is quite clear, and there’s a lot of momentum right now," Chair Elyse Dashew said, referring to a nationwide push to acknowledge and remove symbols of white supremacy.

But Dashew said she’s among many in the community who are wondering: What was the school board thinking when it chose that name?

After all, Vance High was built in northeast Charlotte in the 1990s, not the 1950s. The board chose four governors as namesakes for a Governors’ Village campus near IBM headquarters and UNC Charlotte. Why was Vance one of them?

Arthur Griffin addresses Charlotte City Council.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE

Arthur Griffin was on the board in the mid-1990s. But as for the name, Griffin said, "I don’t remember. I just hated it all."

What Griffin hated was the plan to build a new high school in what was then a booming and mostly white part of town.

"I just thought it was the wrong thing to do, building those schools out there at the time," Griffin said Monday. "That’s where West Charlotte got its white kids from. "

Resegregating West Charlotte

West Charlotte High, more than any other school, symbolizes the racial struggles that made Charlotte a national symbol of desegregation in the 1970s -- and of resegregation in the 2000s. It started as an all-Black school, then became a point of community pride when busing and boundaries were used to create a racially mixed West Charlotte.

Over Griffin’s objections, the school board moved ahead with plans for Vance High, which opened in 1997. By the time court-ordered desegregation was overturned in the early 2000s, West Charlotte High was already reverting to a mostly black school.

Today West Charlotte is 77% Black – and about 1% white. It struggles with low test scores and other challenges associated with racial and economic isolation.

"And now people talking about how bad off West Charlotte is," Griffin said. "They don’t realize when it started going down."

Vance High was mostly white when it opened. Today only about 3% of students are white, because of changing demographics and a burgeoning school choice movement.

An 8-1 Vote

So back to the name. CMS board policy calls for schools to be named for locations, historic figures or people who have made outstanding contributions to schools. The naming process must include input from community, historical and cultural groups.

On Monday, CMS provided minutes from the 1996 meeting where Vance High was named. That report says CMS was looking for governors with ties to Mecklenburg County whose names weren’t already attached to other North Carolina schools.

Vance’s personal history isn’t mentioned. The minutes say that Ann Clark, the school’s first principal, reported that parents and students in the area supported the name. The vote was 8 to 1, with Griffin among those in favor. George Dunlap, who now chairs the Mecklenburg County commissioners, voted no because of a concern with the process, not the man selected.

Dunlap said Monday he doesn't remember much concern about the name at the time, but he's glad to see it change.

Not The First

Credit Courtesy of Stacy Rue / UNCC Atkins Library
UNCC Atkins Library
A school directory lists Zeb Vance as a white city of Charlotte school in 1939.

One of the most intriguing Vance tidbits comes from Stacy Rue, who works in the historical archives at UNC Charlotte's Atkins Library. She does a lot of research on CMS history.

"And that," Rue said Monday, "is how I discovered that this was not the first Vance school in Charlotte."

In 1930, she said, the PTA of the all-white Third Ward School got permission from the Charlotte city school board to rename their school for Zebulon Vance. It was an elementary school, Rue said, serving grades 1 to 7.

"Then, following the consolidation of the Charlotte city school system and the Mecklenburg County school system, Zeb Vance was reopened as an African American school in 1961," Rue said.

Credit Courtesy of Stacy Rue / UNCC Atkins Library
UNCC Atkins Library
In the 1960s, directories show Zeb Vance as a "Negro" school in CMS.

That Zeb Vance School lasted eight years, until 1969.

"There was a group of Black schools the school system closed, including like Second Ward High school, as the school system was preparing for the outcome of Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education," Rue said.

Zeb Vance School was among them … and that was the court case that led to the desegregation of CMS and West Charlotte High.

Griffin, the former school board member, graduated from Second Ward High. More than 50 years after its closing, Griffin says Charlotte is still failing to address pervasive racism and its devastating effects on children of color.

"Now the focus is Vance – why’d we pick Vance? You know, that’s just a cog in a bigger wheel that we’re ignoring," he said.

Dashew and other board members say they understand that renaming Vance is just a symbol – and dealing with racial equity is the work ahead.

What's Next On Names?

The CMS school naming policy says only that names can be changed "when the use of a school or other facility changes." Dashew said the board wants to consider when there are other appropriate reasons -- and study whether other schools might also carry offensive names.

Many of the district's 175 schools are named for people. Some are world famous -- think Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. Others are educators still remembered in the community: Jay M. Robinson Middle School, E.E. Waddell Language Academy, William Amos Hough High, David Butler High and many more. 

At least one -- former Gov. James Martin, namesake of James Martin Middle School in Governors' Village -- is still alive, even though current policy says schools can only be named for people dead at least five years.

But other names have become blurred with history. Dashew says the district will research any ties to the Confederacy or white supremacy.

Meanwhile, the Vance renaming process will begin. CMS regulations say the principal must convene a naming committee to submit three names and get community feedback on the options.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.