Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board renames high school to honor late civil rights attorney; removes name of former governor who owned slaves

Julius Chambers

A Charlotte high school named in honor of a slave-holding governor will be renamed to honor a civil rights attorney whose signature work paved the way for full school integration.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education on Tuesday voted to strip the name of two-time governor Zebulon Baird Vance from Vance High School and replaced it with that of Julius L. Chambers, a noted attorney who helped to shape the nation’s civil right laws.

The school will be renamed Julius L. Chambers High School.

“Mr. Chambers’ life and legacy represents the very best of who we are,” CMS school board member Elyse Dashew said in a statement. “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, who died in 2013, founded the first integrated law firm in the state. The firm brought several landmark civil rights cases, including Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which sought to uphold busing programs used to speed school desegregation.

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs, ruling that busing was an appropriate remedy for school racial imbalance, even when that imbalance occurred due to students attending schools closer to home rather than deliberate school assignments based on race.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed the lawsuit on behalf of six-year-old James Swann and nine other families. Chambers would go on to lead the organization founded in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African American appointed to the nation’s highest court.

The CMS statement noted that the renaming followed many community discussions about Vance who was a lawyer, U.S. senator and Confederate military office who came from a wealthy, slave-owning Buncombe County family.

“Names and symbols should reflect our values. They speak to who we are and what we aspire to do,” said CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston. “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 this renaming, we consulted with the students, the school staff and the community.”

The board considered two other names — University City High School and Queen City High School. It decided on Julius L. Chambers High School after more than 500 students and 1,200 residents made it their top choice in a survey.

Chambers was a popular chancellor at his alma mater, N.C, Central University in Durham, from 1991-2000. The university’s Julius L. Chambers Biomedical Biotechnology Research Institute carries his name.

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