None of us knew Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose statue in Richmond has been ordered to come down by the governor over the Confederacy’s support of slavery. We can only read about Lee in history books.
But if you’re of a certain age in Winchester, you might have known the late U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., who was born here and died here in 2013 at age 98. When Byrd was a young state senator, he helped craft Virginia’s “massive resistance” policy against desegregating the commonwealth’s public schools.
Massive resistance resulted in some schools closing for a period of time rather than integrating. The policy was horribly wrong and racist and part of an unbearably painful part of Virginia history. Later in life, Byrd admitted as much.
So the decision on Wednesday by Shenandoah University’s Board of Trustees to remove Byrd’s name from its School of Business should come as no surprise. Even Byrd would likely say as much. He was reluctant about it from the start.
Prior to the university’s board naming the business school for Byrd in 1984, he talked with university officials about his years in elected office, including his support of massive resistance. Given that history, a school building was not a good vehicle to carry Byrd’s name or the burden of his legacy. But there’s also Harry F. Byrd Jr., the newspaper publisher, neighbor on Tennyson Avenue who gave out full-size candy bars to trick-or-treaters at Halloween, and ardent community supporter of events such as the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival.
Those in his hometown who knew him will remember him as unfailingly courteous and exceedingly generous. He was a wealthy man who shared the fruits of his success with others, including the university, to which he made untold significant contributions.
Upon his death, he left employees of Byrd Newspapers with more than 10 years of service $10,000 each for his appreciation of the work they do.
Perhaps most telling in his generosity were the scholarships he established. A statewide program he created 26 years ago continues to award a graduating high school senior from each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts a scholarship based on an application and interview process with a committee. The current amount awarded per student is $15,000.
From 1954 to 2018, while the Byrd family was still in the newspaper business, The Winchester Star’s Star Leadership Award, which Byrd started, gave approximately $900,000 in scholarships to area high school seniors to use as they saw fit.
Maybe the scholarships Byrd set up and the importance he placed on education and helping young people were his way of righting a past wrong, but he’s not here to ask.
In the big picture, the university’s decision stands to reason, given the social unrest that has swept the nation in recent weeks over the death of a black man named George Floyd, who was killed while being restrained by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25.
Calls for racial justice and for America to stop glorifying its racist past are long overdue in some corners of the country. Shenandoah is a private institution that must do what it thinks is best for itself.
As a community, however, while we must not forget Byrd’s failings as a politician, lest history repeat itself, we should also remember the good he did here, much of which we will never know.