A year-long debate over changing the name of a high school in Northern Virginia that is named after a Confederate general may come down to simply removing three initials.
The Fairfax County School Board is poised to vote on a measure Thursday night that would rebrand J.E.B. Stuart High after a divisive inquiry into the history of the school and the legacy of its namesake. One option under consideration is to remove the initials “J.E.B.” and call the school “Stuart High.”
J.E.B. Stuart High appears to be one of at least three public schools in Virginia named after the Rebel officer, according to state records. Two others are in Petersburg and Richmond.
The name-change discussions in Fairfax come amid a polarizing debate about the way the Confederacy is commemorated in public spaces across the South. In South Carolina, lawmakers voted in 2015 for the Confederate flag to be removed from the statehouse grounds. In Louisiana, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu led a movement this year to take down statues honoring Confederate leaders.
In Fairfax, the campaign to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High began in 2015 when students approached board member Sandy Evans (Mason), whose district includes the school.
The high school is among the most diverse in the county. More than three-quarters of the school’s 2,130 students are either Hispanic, black, Asian or multiracial. Whites comprise 22 percent of enrollment.
The board first proposed examining the legacy of J.E.B. Stuart High after determining that the school was originally named in 1958 as part of the county’s “massive resistance” against the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to end racial segregation of public schools.
“The School Board finds there is a compelling need to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School to one that better reflects Fairfax County values and diversity,” Evans wrote in a proposal this week to change the name, including “the fact that some of the Confederacy’s foundational principles run counter to the values of diversity, inclusion and equity that are fundamental to the mission of Fairfax County Public Schools.”
The effort gained momentum after prominent Hollywood producer Bruce Cohen and actress Julianne Moore — Oscar winners who met at J.E.B. Stuart in the 1970s — started a change.org petition that garnered 35,000 signatures.
The board voted last summer to formulate a commission to examine the issue, seeking to build community consensus. But, like the nation during the Civil War, the committee ended up splitting into two sides: the “keepers,” who sought for the name to remain the same, and the “name changers.” What followed was a months-long slog as the two sides, pitted against one another, failed to agree on a way forward. Members of the committee submitted competing reports outlining reasons for and against changing the name.
“We’re all struggling with this one,” Evans said. “There’s strong, heartfelt feelings on both sides.”
The end result is what Evans, who chaired the board from July 2016 until earlier this month, calls a compromise. Evans proposes to rename the school simply “Stuart High.” Evans told The Washington Post that the name Stuart would not in particular “reference any individual.”
Evans said her proposal is “not a recommendation.” She said it is “one thing we’re asking the community to consider.” How the majority on the 11-member board will vote is unclear.
The Evans proposal could save money. An assessment from the administration estimated that a complete name change would cost more than $675,000. Evans’s proposal calls for the board to finance the name change using private money, including possible corporate partnerships with the county.
If the board votes to approve changing the name, other hurdles remain. The change would not go into effect until 2019 to account for a lengthy process the district must undergo to consult with the community about possibilities for the new name.
Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said that she opposes changing the name and does not believe that the board has the authority to even consider renaming the school.
“Are we governing to impose what we believe is morally right onto the people who elected us?” Schultz asked. She said the lengthy discussion about the issue had been unfair to those who oppose the name change. “The scales have been weighted against them from the outset.”
Schultz noted that several schools in the county besides J.E.B. Stuart have names with Confederate ties. They include Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, named for the Confederate general; Lanier Middle School in Fairfax City, named for a Confederate soldier and poet; and Sangster Elementary in Springfield, named for a prominent slaveholding family loyal to the Confederacy. Dozens of other schools, including the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Schultz said, are named after slave owners and their families or estates.
But Evans said that there is no current movement to change the names of those schools.
“I don’t see that happening anytime soon,” Evans said, noting that the decision must arise organically. “That would be up for that community to initiate it.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the tenure of Fairfax County School Board member Sandy Evans as chair of the board. Her one-year term as chair ended on July 13. This version has been updated.