Change William R. Davie Middle STEM Academy to Dr. James E. Cheek Sr. Middle STEM Academy

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William R. Davie Middle STEM Academy is a Title I middle school in the Halifax County School District in Halifax County, North Carolina. 

Located in NC’s northeast region, Halifax is a predominantly Black Tier I county (among the state’s most economically distressed). According to the NC Department of Commerce, the county had the third lowest median household income in the state in 2017 ($34,027) and the ninth highest unemployment rate from November 2018 to October 2019 (5.93%). 

In 2018-19, HCS served over 2300 students, 83% of whom were Black. Most of the district’s employees were also Black (84%). With an overwhelming percentage of Black students and employees, why does Halifax County Schools continue to let William R. Davie Middle STEM Academy bear the name of a man who enslaved Black people?

William Richardson Davie is considered one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. A military officer during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, he was a delegate for North Carolina during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. A reputable and wealthy attorney, he became a state legislator, served as governor from 1798-1799, and is considered the founder of the University of North Carolina (UNC-Chapel Hill), having sponsored the bill that chartered the institution in 1789. He sat on its Board of Trustees for almost 20 years (1789-1807), was Grand Master of the state’s Masonic Lodge (1792-1798) and served as an envoy to France.

Despite these accolades, Davie engaged in the reprehensible and despicable business of chattel slavery, owning several plantations and other tracts of land in Halifax, Chatham, Craven, Northampton and Tyrell counties. According to the first United States census in 1790, Davie enslaved 36 Africans while living in Halifax County. By the time of his death in 1820 at his Tivoli plantation in Chester County, South Carolina, he enslaved 116 Africans valued at $32,050 (over $702,000 in 2020), good enough for 68% of the total value of his estate. 

In addition, Davie threatened a Southern delegation walkout at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, insisting that “the business of the convention was at an end” if the enslaved were not counted as part of state populations. Of course, this was not for their human worth, but simply to have a stronger Southern influence in federal policy.

Davie’s insistence laid the groundwork for the Three-Fifths Clause of the original US Constitution that counted human property as 3/5s of a human being, despite those same people not being recognized as human beings, let alone citizens with the right to vote. This gave the slaveholding South disproportionate representation in the US House of Representatives, leading to disproportionate influence on the Presidency, the speakership of the House, and the Supreme Court prior to the Civil War. 

Davie would argue vigorously at the conventions held in North Carolina for ratification of the Constitution. Despite demanding the enslaved be counted as part of the population, he asserted at the convention of 1788 that “The gentleman ‘does not wish to be represented with negroes,’” and stated of enslaved Blacks, “This Sir is an unhappy species of population, but we can not at present alter their situation.” He added that “in a time of war, slaves rendered a country more vulnerable” while insisting on the other hand, “in time of peace, they contributed, by their labor, to the general wealth. . .” He said the enslaved were “rational beings” that “had a right of representation, and, in some instances, might be highly useful in war.” Davie continuously contradicted himself while trying to get his fellow state delegates to vote in favor of ratification. 

Years later in 1794, during his time in the state legislature, he was responsible for introducing a bill entitled “An Act to prevent the owners of slaves from hiring to them their time, to make compensation to patrols, and to restrain the abuses committed by free negroes and mulattoes.” This legislation permitted patrollers to “inflict a punishment, not exceeding fifteen lashes, on all slaves they may find off their owner’s plantation, or travelling on the Sabbath, or other unreasonable time, without a proper permit or pass.” Not only would the enslaved in NC not be able to earn money when they had free time, but they would be whipped if found at any time without proper identification. Davie was responsible for that.

So the name of a renowned White supremacist is on a school building where the majority of the people who pass through it daily – whether students, employees, parents, etc. – would not have been recognized by him as fellow human beings. A man who enslaved people who looked like them not only to increase his own wealth and political power, but that of other White men.  

It may have made sense to name the school after Davie when it was dedicated in 1941 and all those who passed through it were White. That was nearly 80 years ago. Times have changed. Literally.  

Therefore, we plead with the HCS Board of Education to change the name of this school to Dr. James E. Cheek Sr. Middle STEM Academy. 

A Roanoke Rapids native, Dr. Cheek, a licensed Baptist minister and Korean War veteran (Air Force), was an assistant professor of New Testament Theology at Virginia Union University before he went on to become the President of not one, but two colleges in Shaw University and Howard University. All three schools are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). 

Cheek, Shaw’s President from 1963-1969, was largely responsible for saving his alma mater from going under financially during his time there. The school named its main library the James E. Cheek Learning Resource Center in his honor.

His 20-year tenure at Howard (1969-1989) transformed that school into its nickname of “The Black Harvard.” Under Cheek, the institution gained 3,000 more students, quadrupled its number of faculty members, established 72 new academic programs (including 16 doctoral programs), exponentially increased its operating budget and federal endowment, secured real estate holdings in Washington, D.C. and four other states valued at $3 billion, and established 11 major research centers. The Howard University Hospital, the Howard Inn hotel, and a new undergraduate library were built during this time and the Howard University Press, the commercial radio station WHUR-FM, and the first Black-owned PBS station, WHUT-TV, were also launched. 

A passionate advocate for HBCUs, Cheek befriended Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, becoming an advisor to each on Black institutions of higher learning. In 1980, Cheek was named Washingtonian of the Year and in 1983, President Reagan bestowed upon him the nation’s highest civilian honor:  The Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1989, he turned down an offer from then President Bush to become the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Cameroons in Africa. Cheek briefly served as education commissioner in the U.S. Virgin Islands from 1995-1996. He died in 2010. The Roanoke Rapids City Council unanimously adopted a resolution honoring his life and legacy in January 2017 and the NC State Senate honored him with a Senatorial Statement in September 2019. 

The name of a prominent Black educator, who was a titan in Black higher education, is better suited on a building where Black children learn and Black adults work than the name of a slave-owning White supremacist who exploited Black people for wealth and political power. Dr. Cheek's family has already given their blessing to do this.

CHANGE THE NAME!