Husband of Prince William School Board member creates petition calling for renaming of Gainesville High School

Richard Jessie, the husband of school board member Lillie Jessie, has created a petition to rename Gainesville High School.

Husband of Prince William School Board member creates petition calling for renaming of Gainesville High School

Nearly three months after the former Stonewall Jackson middle and high school were renamed due to their association with a slave-owning Confederate general, another Prince William County School is receiving calls to be renamed due to its ties to slavery.

Richard Jessie, the husband of Occoquan District Member of the Prince William County School Board Lillie Jessie, has created a petition to rename the unopened Gainesville High School due to its name’s ties to Thomas Brawner Gaines, a prominent land and slave owner before the Civil War. The petition, having only been active for days, has amassed over one-hundred signatures.

“This petition is not asking for the renaming of any existing building, city, district, or anything else. But what I am saying is how dare the School Board and the School Division knowingly allow a school to be named after a slave owner now!” stated Jessie in the petition.

According to Jessie, the day after the school board approved the name Gainesville High School, it received an email from a Prince William County resident ‘expressing bewilderment that Prince William County School Board named the new high school Gainesville’ and explaining Thomas Brawner Gaines’ slaveholding legacy. The email, according to Jessie, stated: Gainesville is named after Thomas Brawner Gaines, a prominent landholder in western Prince William County before the Civil War. Like almost all Prince William County landholders of the period, Mr. Gaines was a slaveholder. Not only did Thomas Gaines own slaves, but he was a “constable” for Prince William County. Mr. Gaines shows up in several Prince William Circuit Court records regarding the disposition of other county residents’ slaves, recommending where those slaves should reside upon the death of their masters.

These findings, according to Jessie, were verified by his wife, board member Lillie Jessie, who voted in favor of naming the high school Gainesville during the school board’s June 10th meeting. Lillie Jessie did not respond to a request for comment.

“School Board Member, Lillie Jessie, spoke to this person. Mrs. Jessie verified the findings, and verbally passed this information on to selected members of the Board. Mrs. Jessie also spoke to the Associate Superintendent of Support Services in a telephone conversation. The Associate agreed but indicated there are numerous schools that have been named after slave owners and those who have questionable backgrounds,” stated Jessie in the petition.

While the petition has garnered support, there is no plan or indication that the school board will vote to change the high school’s name, according to Diana Gulotta, Director of Communications Services for Prince William County Public Schools. At least one school board member, has, however, voiced their disfavor for renaming the school.

“To be clear, the new high school is not named Thomas Gaines. Its name is Gainesville High School. The school is named after the thriving and ethnically diverse Gainesville community from which most of its students will come. Aside from the practical difficulties and costs for renaming schools, I personally think it is a slippery slope, especially here in Virginia, to begin erasing any vestiges of our troubled past regardless of how much time has passed, how many steps removed, or what the modern reputation of a community is today,” said Jennifer T. Wall, the Gainesville District member of the Prince William County School Board.

Gainesville High School is the 13th high school in Prince William County and is expected to open in September 2021. The Prince William County School Board voted to name it ‘Gainesville’ during their June 10th board meeting, as well as its library media center in honor of fallen police officer Ashley Marie Guindon and its Student Services Center in honor of retired Prince William County teacher and counselor Lillian Orlich.