After prompting from state authorities, Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC) has proposed changing its name to Virginia Peninsula Community College. Thomas Nelson signed the Declaration of Independence and was Governor of Virginia. However, he owned a large Virginia estate that included slaves, and he had a “lifelong investment in the institution of slavery” with a desire to perpetuate it, according to a TNCC historical background article.
In July 2020, as part of a national reckoning over monuments and historical treatment of Black Americans, Virginia’s State Board for Community Colleges (VSBCC) asked Virginia’s 23 community colleges to review the “appropriateness” of school names and the names of facilities.
“Whereas, the mission of Virginia’s Community Colleges and their shared dedication to the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion demand we examine the names regularly facing our students, faculty, staff, and supporters on their community college journey and determine if those names are consistent with that mission and those values,” the state board’s July 2020 resolution said.
Patrick Henry Community College and Dabney S. Lancaster Community College resisted the change, but the state board insisted, telling local college officials that the board will change the name if they do not. Three other community colleges reported to the state board a desire to change their names, including TNCC, which the board approved. In July, John Tyler Community College proposed a name change to Brightpoint Community College, and Lord Fairfax Community College proposed a name change to Laurel Ridge.
On Wednesday, the TNCC Board approved the name Virginia Peninsula Community College, which will now be sent to the VSBCC for approval. The other names considered were Harbor Bridge Community College and Two Rivers Community College. According to a TNCC release, a key criterion of the new name was to not draw inspiration from a person’s name.
“It also wanted a name that would reflect the geography of the institution’s service area, be timeless, and offer a sense of belonging for all students, no matter their background,” TNCC states. “Two buildings on the College’s Hampton campus – Griffin and Wythe halls – are named for associates of Thomas Nelson, and also will be renamed. Three other buildings (Moore, Diggs and Harrison) are named for Nelson’s contemporaries, too, but they are scheduled to be replaced by a new building in the coming years.”
Nelson was an early advocate of the American Revolution, according to the TNCC article Reconsidering the Namesake: Thomas Nelson Jr., the rise of Yorktown, and the challenges of acknowledging an inclusive history. Nelson opposed British taxation policy, and contributed to the success of a boycott of British goods in Yorktown.
“The Nelson Family was able to leverage the influence of their gentry class status with their mercantile dominance to compel residents of Yorktown into compliance with non-importation agreements,” the article states.
He was also an “exemplary” fundraiser and donated much of his money to the revolutionary cause. He was also praised by his contemporaries. The article cites James Madison: “General Nelson…was excelled by no man in the generosity of his nature, in the nobleness of his sentiments, in the purity of his Revolutionary principles, and in the exalted patriotism that answered every service and sacrifice that his country might need.”
But that legacy was tainted by Nelson’s upbringing in a slave-owning household and his own perpetuation of slavery.
“In many ways, Thomas Nelson, Jr. seems to have embraced the paternalistic role as master endowed upon him as a man in the gentry class. Throughout the span of his life, Nelson routinely bought, sold, and entailed hundreds of enslaved people in his will – determining circumstances over which enslaved people had no input. In addition, Nelson vigorously advertised substantial rewards for the return or capture of slaves that had run away. However, while weighty evidence points to his father and grandfather imported and sold slaves from the Yorktown port, no such advertisements can be found attributed to Thomas Nelson, Jr.,” the TNCC article states.
The reckoning over Virginian heroes is ongoing. On Monday, Virginia officials announced that removal of Richmond’s large Robert E. Lee statue is scheduled for Wednesday morning.
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