Some who advocated for the name change were jubilant at the news.
“I LOVE ITTTT,” texted Kadija Ismail, a 17-year-old senior at the high school who launched an online petition in June to change the name. That petition earned more than 1,000 signatures in a day.
Similar petitions have cropped up across the South over the past two months, started by students, alumni and parents. Inspired by the demonstrations sweeping the nation after Floyd’s death, they are demanding the removal of Confederate names and mascots from schools — and they are seeing success.
Schools in Virginia are swiftly dropping the lingering ties to the Confederacy: In Prince William County, the school board voted to rename Stonewall Middle School as Unity Braxton Middle School, honoring a local black couple. Loudoun County High School agreed to remove its mascot, the Raiders, named for Confederate Col. John S. Mosby’s troops. Although many are still deciding on replacement names, the options being advanced often include figures such as Lewis, Cesar Chavez and President Barack Obama.
Lee served as commander of the Confederate army during the Civil War. Lewis, who died on July 17, was a civil rights leader who was beaten and jailed as he fought for equality in the 1960s and later spent more than 30 years as a Democrat in Congress.
“It is hard to imagine a more fitting replacement for a disgraced Confederate general than a civil rights icon,” said Fairfax school board member Karl Frisch (Providence).
Many Southern schools adopted Confederate names in the 1950s and 1960s, as an angry response to the Supreme Court’s seminal 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education. Virginia is the state with the second-highest number of schools with Confederate names, with at least 26, according to an analysis by Education Week.
In Fairfax, according to Ismail, serious efforts to change the name date to at least 2017. Ismail, who is black, got involved her freshman year, as did her friend Kimberly Boateng, 17, who is also black. Both felt it was embarrassing to see Lee’s name adorn a school that is majority black, Latino and Asian. (White students constituted just 16 percent of the student body in 2018-2019).
After Floyd’s killing, they wrote a letter to the superintendent and the school board. Lee “embodies the very heart of racism,” they wrote.
After learning of the new name Thursday, Ismail said she thought back to her freshman year. She remembered all the days she walked into school, beneath Lee’s name and past a massive portrait of the man that hangs in the entryway.
“It’s amazing how far our school has come,” she said.
Boateng said she thought about the future. She said she keeps envisioning her diploma — which will now bear Lewis’s name, not Lee’s.
And that, she said, “means dignity.”