Occaneechi was the top choice this spring for at least one Orange County school getting a new name, but it didn’t make the final cut because of the Native American tribe’s historical association with slavery.
The county school board voted in February to rename Cameron Park Elementary School and C.W. Stanford Middle School after both schools’ namesakes were identified as having historical racist ties.
Cameron Park is named for an Orange County slaveowner. Stanford Middle is named for Charles W. Stanford Sr., who was an Orange County school board member and chairman during segregation.
The decision to change Stanford’s name, based on his association with a school board that upheld separate but unequal education for Black students, wasn’t unanimous. It’s still a frustrating decision for Stanford’s family and some community members.
This spring, the district appointed an 18-member committee of parents, staff, community members and students to gather new names.
It could cost up to $200,000 to rename the schools, from new athletic uniforms and equipment to new band and cheerleader uniforms, scoreboards and new mascot decals for schools walls, floors and other spots on campus.
Proposed names, honoring a scientist
The committee submitted its proposed new names for the elementary and middle schools to the school board in May:
▪ River Park Elementary or Arbor Park Elementary.
Board member Carrie Doyle suggested a third option, to honor Kizzmekia Corbett, an Orange County native and immunologist who helped develop the Moderna vaccine. Corbett, who is joining Harvard’s School of Public Health, was recognized by the county and the school district this year for her work and has been a mentor for African-American students.
“I just feel like this has been such an exceptional year, she is such an exceptional person, and these things coinciding that we have the opportunity to kind of mark this momentous time with the scientist who has contributed so significantly to leading us out of this pandemic,” Doyle said.
▪ Orange Middle, Hillsborough Middle or Poplar Middle, for the poplar trees on the school campus.
Board members expressed concern about having another school named “Hillsborough” or “Orange,” both names of existing schools.
Orange got the most public support with 16 people proposing it for the middle school, which is next to Orange High School.
However, Poplar Middle got more school board support, with the addition of the words “hill,” “forest” or “ridge.” Board member Brenda Stephens said that would avoid creating an awkward acronym, “PMS,” for local middle school students.
The board will hold public hearings at 6 p.m. June 22 to consider Cameron Park’s new name and at 6 p.m. June 23 for Stanford Middle, followed by a June 28 vote.
American slave history changed
The board did not discuss naming a school for the Occaneechi at its June 7 meeting. The tribe’s name got 11 nominations from the community early in the process, committee minutes show, followed by seven public nominations for Corbett.
While the Cherokee are widely known for being among five “civilized” Native American tribes that enslaved Black people, an online search found no reports that the Occaneechi and other North Carolina tribes owned African slaves or participated in that slave trade.
Instead, reports state the Occaneechi captured enemies from neighboring tribes and traded them for English weapons in the 1600s.
The Occaneechi lived at the time on a Roanoke River island in Virginia, where English and Spanish colonizers had been enslaving native people and their children for many decades, according to Encyclopedia Virginia. The Occaneechi and the neighboring Westo tribe dominated the native slave trade, which prevailed at the time, raiding other tribes, and killing and enslaving their people.
But in 1676, the Occaneechi found themselves scattered as Virginia planter Nathaniel Bacon attempted to foment a rebellion against colonial governor William Berkeley over his efforts to appease both native tribes and the settlers who wanted their lands.
Bacon enlisted the Occaneechi to fight the Susquehannock tribe, who were defeated. Bacon’s militia then slaughtered the Occaneechi and destroyed their village, according to History.com. Those who survived moved to a settlement on the Eno River in present-day Hillsborough.
Honored but not interested
Bacon’s rebellion, which led to the burning of Jamestown later that year, is now seen as a turning point in the American slave trade, according to Facing History and Ourselves, a global education nonprofit.
White colonists, reacting to the violence of Bacon’s militia, which included enslaved Africans and white and Black indentured servants, began to give white servants new rights while treating all Africans as enslaved people, the group reported.
The Occaneechi may not have enslaved Africans, but they helped white colonists enslave native people and also supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, committee member Patrick Mitchell said. That creates an association with slavery, he said, just as Stanford’s service during segregation associated him with that policy, despite a lack of his individual decisions and statements.
“What’s going to come up when we start looking into actual historical documents?” Mitchell said. “When we’re looking at renaming a school because he’s associated, and we don’t even have proof how strong that association is? Is it just are we jumping from one frying pan to another frying pan? How is the press going to handle that? How are the people going to handle that?”
Stanford parent and committee member Dan Howarth, who recommended the name Occaneechi, acknowledged the concerns but stood by his recommendation.
“I think that honoring the local Native Americans, overall, I would view as a noble thing to do considering what transpired in terms of taking their land and that kind of stuff,” Howarth said.
John “Blackfeather” Jeffries, who served on the committee, and members of the Occaneechi tribal council withdrew their support for a school name “Occaneechi” in May after the committee’s discussion.
The conversation raised concerns that the tribe’s name could be unfairly tarnished, said Tony Hayes, chair of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation.
The Occaneechi tribe “was really honored” to be considered for a school name, but “quite frankly, I felt like it was turning into a research witchhunt,” Hayes said in an interview with The News & Observer.
“We didn’t storm out of the room and cry foul, but we’re certainly not interested in having our name on any facility if there is any kind of suspicion or any unfounded accusations that could come back and denigrate the name of the tribe or put us in a situation that historically nobody can really prove that this exists,” Hayes said.