Remember this name

Published 9:46 pm Friday, October 21, 2016

Naming schools is surprisingly fraught with complications and unexpected consequences.

What is a local School Board to do, for instance, when a community’s sensibilities finally catch up with the ugly reality that naming a school after a Civil War figure will inevitably be considered hurtful and divisive by a large portion of the population that school serves?

What happens when, God forbid, history reveals that a person had some dark secret whose uncovering makes her unworthy of being the namesake for an educational facility?

Email newsletter signup

Those thorny questions are taken straight from the headlines, and they provide just the kind of entanglements the Suffolk School Board would like to avoid when considering school names. That’s why the board of late has an unwritten, but widely recognized, policy to eschew names that honor people and instead opt for names that refer to the place where a school is located.

Therefore, Pioneer Elementary School, the most recent public education facility to be built in Suffolk, takes its name from the road it stands beside. The solution recognizes the fact that government edicts really only work when they’re set in black-and-white terms.

As soon as a government agency begins making exceptions to a rule, there will be others who seek to force those individual exceptions into ever-broader classes of people. Pretty soon, there are so many exceptions that the rule is meaningless. For more perspective on that problem, take a look at the U.S. tax code.

And yet.

A proposal to honor U.S. Air Force Col. Fred V. Cherry, who died at 87 in February, by naming the middle school in Burbage Grant after him, is one of those rare opportunities for a government agency to truly do something that’s just right.

Cherry, a Suffolk native, was the first and highest-ranking black officer to become a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He spent more than seven years in captivity, surviving torture at the hands of the enemy and becoming close friends with a white man from North Carolina who had been placed in his cell in an attempt to spur racial division.

There is pretty much no account of Col. Cherry — especially not from Lt. j.g. Porter Halyburton, the cellmate who would become Cherry’s lifelong friend — that does not include the word “hero.” To the extent that school names (think Kennedy and King, for instance) provide inspiration toward success for their students, it’s hard to imagine a name that would carry more weight.

Suffolk’s City Council could give the School Board some easy cover for bending its unwritten rule on the naming of schools, and it would generate some good publicity of its own by doing so. By simply renaming Burbage Road as Col. Fred V. Cherry Road, council could clear the way for the School Board to name the school Cherry Middle.

It would be a good move, even if there were no school to be named. “Burbage” has no meaning to folks in Suffolk. But Cherry is a name that should be remembered.