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In spring 1967, the land that would become the Peninsula’s community college was just a swampy forested tract of land.
A year earlier, Gov. Mills Godwin had signed legislation creating the Virginia Community College System, setting up a system of local boards that eventually led to a network of 23 public two-year colleges across the state.
The Thomas Nelson Society and the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution presented the Peninsula board with a scholarship in May 1967, covering tuition for one student annually at the future school. Partially in recognition, the board decided to name the college after the Revolutionary War hero and prominent Yorktown resident who signed the Declaration of Independence.
“He’s got this impressive resume. That’s who he is in 1967,” said Stacey Schneider, an associate professor of history at Thomas Nelson Community College. “Now, looking at Thomas Nelson, he is all of those things. But on top of that, he is a slave owner.”
The college, as part of a statewide push to reconsider the names of community college facilities connected to systemic racism, is in the process of reconsidering its own name.
Nelson’s wealth and legacy was built in part on generations of the slave trade. TNCC plans to make a recommendation to the state community college board this spring on whether to rename the school.
“I think a name matters. It says something about who you are, what you stand for,” said TNCC interim president Gregory DeCinque. “And today, this is not 1700. It’s a very different time.”
‘He clearly is not an underdog’
Schneider has spent months researching Nelson and other namesakes of buildings and spaces on campus, digging into courthouse and newspaper archives to write a more complete history of Nelson and other sometimes obscure local figures.
She says Nelson’s wealth, which afforded him a prominent position in Virginia society, was built on the backs of enslaved Africans.
Nelson’s father and grandfather bought and sold slaves from Africa as they built a mercantile empire in Yorktown. If it hadn’t been for slavery, would he have been able to study at Cambridge University? Would his father have secured him a seat in the House of Burgesses?
“I always think of (TNCC) as kind of a school for underdogs,” said Schneider, who started teaching at the college as an adjunct while a graduate student in 2007. “How does he fit in to that? He clearly is not an underdog.”
Nelson, one of Yorktown’s most famous residents, is most well known for his participation in the American Revolution. Nelson served as acting governor during the Revolutionary War and a general in the Virginia Militia.
By the time he inherited the family business, Yorktown had lost its prominence in the slave trade. But throughout his life, he bought and sold enslaved people and vigorously advertised rewards for slaves who escaped.
When Nelson died in 1789, more than 75% of his wealth was in the form of 219 people that he owned. An inventory of his estate Schneider obtained from York Circuit Court includes a long list of names with prices listed next to them: Aggy 1/4 u00a310. Betty 1/4 u00a312. Dinah 1/4 u00a35.
In 1974, the local college board decided to name buildings after four of Nelson’s contemporaries: George Wythe, Benjamin Harrison V, Dr. Corbin Griffin, Augustine Moore and Dudley Diggs.
Schneider said that these men were more obscure and harder to research than Nelson. Some played a role in slavery, but the historical evidence isn’t clear-cut.
George Wythe, for example, personally fought against slavery later in his life, freeing the people that he owned and put them in his will. But as a judge, he often ruled in favor of property owners in disputes about slavery.
Schneider says that the college’s name is the product of a particular context in the late 1960s. It reflected the history of the area, and in a time marked by student protests at other major universities, showed a certain amount of conservatism. Naming it for a colonial figure and not just a place gave it credibility, like the College of William & Mary.
“I’ve got my old prom dress upstairs,” Schneider said. “Because it fit me in 1993, it doesn’t necessarily mean I can go upstairs and fit me now.”
A systemwide push
The renaming push within VCCS started this summer as protests swept the country. In early July, Gov. Ralph Northam issued a call to school boards to take Confederate names off schools.
VCCS Chancellor Glenn DuBois issued a similar call to community college presidents, saying it was time for the system to join other institutions examining “symbols of systemic racism” on their campuses.
“I believe we must join this conversation and focus a high level of scrutiny on the names that adorn our facilities,” DuBois wrote.
At DuBois’s recommendation, the State Board for Community Colleges passed a resolution on July 16 asking local college boards to review the name of each college, campus and facilities and report back in time for the board’s March meeting.
Each local advisory college board can change the name of individual buildings. However, the name of the actual college needs to be approved at the state level.
DeCinque started a task force this summer with a combination of board members and college staff to start work on the project. Schneider volunteered to do most of the historical research.
She’s assembled her work in the form of a two-part video lecture on YouTube and written a short paper on the history of the Nelson family. The college held an open online forum Friday afternoon with DeCinque and local board chair Mike Kuhns to collect feedback, which will go into the naming and facilities report.
“She did some really good deep research, and I think that’s appropriate,” DeCinque said. “You don’t want to just start this kind of a process just on, ‘well this is what I think’ or ‘this is my opinion.’ You want some facts about the individuals that you’re discussing.”
The matter at TNCC will ultimately fall to DeCinque’s successor, Towuanna Porter Brannon who will take over the reins of the college on Jan. 1. The renaming committee plans to present a preliminary report to the local college board in January, which will then make a recommendation to the state board on the college name and rename the facilities that it has power to.
Other state community colleges have started taking steps. A task force at John Tyler Community College recommended last month that the college, named for the tenth president, drop its name. A committee at Patrick Henry Community College recommended the school nix its Patriot mascot.
“We just simply want our students to all feel proud of the name of the college that they attended,” DeCinque said.
Matt Jones, 757-247-4729, firstname.lastname@example.org