Paul H. Cale Elementary Rechristening Advances

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Cale Elementary School on Avon Street in Charlottesville. Photo: Lisa Martin.

“There was actually a shudder,” said Paul Cale Jr., recalling the September 11 Cale Renaming Advisory Committee meeting he attended with his sister, Suzanne. When the committee announced its decision that the name of Cale Elementary School should be changed, many of Paul H. Cale’s supporters in the audience were stunned. “I heard several women behind me shudder at the announcement,” said Cale Jr., the school namesake’s son. “Of course, my sister and I had a more realistic view of what would happen, having lived with this for 11 months.”

The 12-member committee determined that the naming of a school after Paul Cale (Sr.), who served as Albemarle schools superintendent from 1947 to 1969, was not consistent with the School Board’s vision, mission, goals and values. School Board member (and then-Chair) Kate Acuff set the naming review effort in motion in October of 2018 after the discovery of a 1956 Commentary magazine article containing paraphrased statements attributed to Cale that expressed frustration with school integration efforts and questioned the competence of African-American teachers.

Following four months of public hearings and historical research, the committee highlighted Cale’s statements and “the continued segregation of county schools long after the Supreme Court decision” (Brown v. Board of Education)as the basis for its conclusion. Paul Cale Jr. is distraught by what he sees as the blithe “destruction of my father’s reputation.” “The meeting lasted only six minutes,” said Cale Jr. “There was no vote reported, only the mention that a ‘consensus’ had been reached, and the press release was full of factual inaccuracies.” 

For example, said Cale Jr., the committee lamented the slow pace of integration, noting that “county schools were not fully integrated until 1968 . . . three years after Charlottesville City Schools were fully integrated.” But historians and press reports have documented that joint city/county school Burley High and Charlottesville’s Lane High School were not fully integrated until 1967 and 1969, respectively.

The committee faulted Cale Sr. for what he did not do as much as for what he did. While conceding that Cale achieved the integration of Albemarle County schools during his tenure despite the efforts of an “overtly racist” School Board and Governor, the committee stressed that Cale never “spoke publicly against segregation” or “pushed to have integration occur faster.” As to the statements attributed to Cale by Commentary magazine, the committee found “no evidence that a correction or retraction of Cale’s comments was ever requested.”

Cale Jr. pointed to the dearth of evidence that his father was a racist, and contrasts that with the many stories told by former students and associates about his father’s strong outreach to black families and other integration efforts. “There were 25 people in the two public hearings that came up to speak, and not a one of them recommended a name change,” he said. “I have read every letter sent to this committee, and not until July were there two letters from the Hate-Free Schools group thanking [current Superintendent] Matt Haas for doing this. Everyone else was against it.”

Reframing the Narrative

On September 26, Haas confirmed his support for the Advisory Committee’s decision to the School Board. Acknowledging that the process had been “agonizing,” particularly for the Cale family, Haas nonetheless insisted that “this kind of societal introspection is part of reframing our historical narrative to be more accurate, relevant and transparent.”

Reflecting after the meeting about the renaming effort that will eventually touch all 14 named schools in the county, Haas noted that, in the past, “there was no application whatsoever of any values in choosing school names; it was usually a product of our nostalgia. There’s a level of accountability now that none of us experienced years ago.” 

Haas ties the renaming plan to the division’s concerted efforts to close the existing racial achievement gap in student assessments. “You get students involved in the process and you say, ‘here, [the name] is your choice,’ and that empowers the students,” he said. “That’s our mission, to shift the climate away from an adult-centered environment. Once we get students involved, then it makes the name of the school more culturally relevant to those attending the school.”

In his remarks to the School Board, Haas broadly indicted the school desegregation era, during which Cale served as Superintendent, for its slow pace and casual injustice to people of color, using a photo of a minstrel show featured in the 1963 Albemarle High School yearbook as one example. “While it was a time that should always be remembered, it is not a time to be celebrated,” he said.

Paul Cale Jr. listens to speakers from the public at a Cale Advisory Committee meeting in June. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Was Cale to blame for all incidents of racism that occurred in county schools during his tenure? “It’s not about blaming Cale,” Haas said later, “but his name is associated with an era that was unequivocally racist. Can you imagine the stir that might have happened if a leader then had said, ‘we’re not doing minstrel shows in our high school’? People who take a stand like that run absolutely perpendicular to the stream of history; those are the people that stand out.”

Haas has no qualms that his decision is at odds with the vast majority of public commenters who supported keeping the school name. “I’ve found that with public opinion in Albemarle County, it’s the people who feel empowered to talk in public who come out,” he said. “When you’re in a place like this with a school system that didn’t begin integration until nine years after the Supreme Court said to do it, and you’re an African American, it’s an extreme challenge to speak in public, especially when people who have power and entitlement are sitting there listening.”

If the School Board agrees that the name should be changed at its October 10 meeting, the committee will reconvene to choose and recommend to the board a new name for the school. The committee will have 90 days to complete its work, which will include surveys and public meetings to gather input from the community, after which the School Board will decide whether to affirm the name choice.

Neither Hero nor Villain

Each of the remaining thirteen schools named for a person in the county will undergo the same scrutiny by a committee formed of its own representatives. At the current pace, the review could take a decade to complete. “One question you have to ask is, does the School Board want the community to be involved in constant name change debates, some of which can get fairly controversial, for a period of ten years,” said Dennis Rooker, Cale Renaming Advisory Committee chair and three-term member of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. “I think the answer is probably going to be no.”

After the committee announced its decision, Rooker reflected that, in his view, the renaming process was flawed. “The process could be streamlined to make it shorter, less costly, and less stressful on the family and friends of the person the school is named after, and on the committee as well,” he said. He advised changing the committee’s mandate to a more open-ended recommendation about what the school’s name should be, considering all possibilities including the original school name.  

This change would eliminate having to go through two rounds of debate and public hearings at the School Board level, and would also reduce the intense focus on the original name. “One problem with the current process is that it becomes somewhat of a referendum on the deceased person’s reputation, which is unfortunate,” said Rooker. Not a fan of naming school buildings in honor of people in any case, Rooker’s preference would be to use natural or geographic names on schools. “I think it could ultimately be an uplifting process for the school community.”

Paul H. Cale. Photo courtesy Paul H. Cale, Jr.

“Mr. Cale was neither a hero nor a villain,” concluded the committee’s report, noting that he “did much to improve education and educational facilities during his time as Superintendent.” The complicated nature of most humans will likely present similar quandaries for future committees, as will attempts to apply current cultural sensibilities to those who lived in other eras. “The research work can be challenging,” said Rooker. “Some people have trouble identifying with the pressures and realities of a prior time.”

Certainly, moral tensions abound. James Rorty, the Commentary writer whose paraphrasing of Paul Cale in 1956 sparked the current renaming endeavor, was an accomplished, award-winning author who was also a self-described radical and a committed Communist. The Earl of Albemarle was a British commander and Governor of Virginia, and also a serial philanderer and spendthrift. And Jack Jouett, a Revolutionary War hero who narrowly saved Thomas Jefferson from capture and execution, was also a slave-owner. The school division will judge the historical contributions of Ben Hurt, Joe Henley, Leslie Walton, Mortimer Sutherland, and Meriwether Lewis based on a policy adopted six months ago.

For his part, Paul Cale Jr. is not giving up the fight for his father’s reputation. “This process was mishandled from the beginning, and the information out there is still incorrect,” he said. “It was a trial on one man’s character, and there was no one on the ‘jury’ who had even been in Albemarle County during the 1950s and 60s, no context of the history of what was going on here then.” Most disturbing to the family is the impending loss of their long-standing relationship with the Cale Elementary community. “What do you tell the children at that school about why you’re changing the name?” said Cale Jr. “It’s a travesty.” 

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