Citing William Richardson Davie’s enslavement of Africans, a social studies teacher has launched a petition to remove the name of the UNC-Chapel Hill founder and former North Carolina governor from a middle school in Halifax County.
Rodney Pierce started an online petition signed by more than 1,200 people who support stripping Davie’s name from William R. Davie Middle STEM Academy in Roanoke Rapids and replacing it with the name of Dr. James Cheek, a native of the city and respected educator who served as president of Howard and Shaw universities.
“The name of a prominent Black educator, who was a titan in Black higher education, is better suited on a building where 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,” Pierce wrote in the petition.
Pierce said the Cheek family has blessed renaming the school in the patriarch’s honor. James Cheek, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, died in 2010.
Pierce, a Halifax County native, attended Davie Middle. He had no idea who Davie was while a student.
He later learned while studying Halifax County’s history that Davie was a slaveowner who pushed for the Three-Fifths Clause in the original U.S. Constitution that counted blacks as three-fifths of a human. The clause gave the South disproportionate representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“When I taught there [Davie Middle], I made sure that the children that I taught knew the person whose name is on the school engaged in trading, selling and purchasing people who look like you and I,” Pierce said in an interview.
Pierce now teaches in the Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools district.
His petition comes at a time when statues and monuments across the nation that honor white supremacists and racists and Confederate heroes are tumbling like dominoes.
In Raleigh recently, a statue of white supremacist Josephus Daniels waving at the old News & Observer building from Nash Square was removed by the Daniels family. Josephus Daniels used the paper to promote white supremacy after gaining contol of it in the 1890s.
School leaders in Wake County also voted to remove Daniels’ name from a Raleigh middle school. The Wake County Board of Education changed the name of Daniels Middle School to Oberlin Middle School.
Pierce’s petition also comes amid civil unrest caused by the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who died after a police officer restrained him by placing a knee on his neck. Floyd’s death, and the deaths of other unarmed blacks, sparked outrage across the nation.
In addition to founding UNC-CH, Davie was a reputable and wealthy attorney, a state legislator and governor from 1798-1799.
Pierce researched the U.S. Census from 1790 and found that Davie “enslaved 36 Africans while living in Halifax County. By the time of his death in 1820 at his Tivoli plantation in Chester County, South Carolina, he enslaved 116 Africans valued at $32,050 (more than $702,000 in 2020 dollars).”
Pierce said he contacted members of the mostly black Halifax County Schools Board of Education about renaming the school but was asked by one member to wait until August to make a formal request.
He also reviewed the deed for the school property and found no provision that prevents the board from changing the school’s name.
A school board member who did not want to be identified for this article said a committee of board members will review the process for changing a school’s name. More information is expected early next week.
Superintendent Eric Cunningham said he has not received a formal request to change the school’s name. He said the district will follow the process for changing a school’s name when a request is made.
Meanwhile, Pierce said it made sense for white leaders to name the school in honor of Davie in 1941 when all of its students were white. But Halifax County Schools now has a predominately Black student enrollment and most educators in the district are African American.
“So, the name of a renowned White supremacist is on a school building 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,” Pierce wrote. “[Davie was] a man who enslaved people who looked like them and used them to not only increase his wealth, but the political power of other White supremacists who enslaved them.”
The contributions Davie made to North Carolina in its infancy are immeasurable, and lasting, Pierce concedes.
The university Davie started in Chapel Hill has spun into a 17-campus system that’s a major economic engine for North Carolina.
Davie is also Founding Father of the nation. He served as an officer during the Revolutionary War and was a delegate from North Carolina during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
“He’s a very accomplished man,” Pierce said.
Still, Davie is tainted by America’s original sin of slavery like many wealthy men from that era, Pierce said.
He owned several plantations and other tracts of land in Halifax, Chatham, Craven, Northampton and Tyrell counties and profited from the free labor of Black people whom he enslaved.
Pierce said removing Davie’s name from the school is the right thing to do for the children of Halifax County.
“This year, I’ll have two children at Davie [Middle School],” Pierce said. “I don’t want my children going to a school named after someone who would have looked down on them and not even recognized them as human.”