The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nearly 200 schools are named for Confederate leaders. Is it time to rename them?

The backlash against public use of Confederate flags has built quickly since nine parishioners were gunned down inside a South Carolina church last week.

Alabama removed the flag from its state capitol grounds Wednesday, and political leaders in Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee and North Carolina have moved to remove Confederate flag symbols from their state license plates. Wal-Mart, Amazon, Sears and eBay all have said they will stop selling the Confederate battle flag, viewed by many people as a symbol of racism and slavery.

But what about the other symbols of the Confederacy that live on in our everyday lives? What, for example, about the dozens of elementary, middle and high schools that bear the names of prominent Confederate leaders?

There are at least 188 such public and public charter schools nationwide, according to an analysis of federal data published by the Web site Vocativ. Many, but not all, are in the South.

And already, there are calls to rename some of them.

Confederate memorials around the country are being vandalized

Worker Galen Roth cleans graffiti off the pedestal of a bronze statue to the "Confederate defenders of Charleston" in Charleston, June 22, 2015. The statue was spray painted with slogans including "Black Lives Matter” in recent days following the mass shooting by Dylann Roof at a Bible study class at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in an attack U.S. officials are investigating as a hate crime. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (Carlo Allegri)

California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), sent a letter to the San Diego Unified School District calling on officials to rename an elementary school that honors Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

"The flag in particular, and anyone associated with this army, in general, have been associated with intolerance, racism and hate, none of which have a place in our schools," Gonzalez wrote, according to San Diego's Fox 5 TV.

Gonzalez wrote that the elementary school is located in a “vibrant, multiethnic community with a strong African-American presence that deserves a school named after someone we can all admire. ... Robert E. Lee is not that person.”

It’s not yet clear whether the push to remove symbols of the Confederacy will extend to school names, which can hold powerful sway with nostalgic alumni.

In 2013, the school board in Florida’s Duval County voted to rechristen a Jacksonville high school named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan.

The school board’s push for a new name was spurred by a parent’s petition. The majority African-American school had carried Forrest’s name since 1959, at the height of the integration of public schools in the South.

But according to Vocativ, there is still a Forrest School that explicitly honors the man in his hometown of Chapel Hill, Tenn., and six other schools that bear Forrest’s name because they are located in a city or county named for him.

In all, 78 schools are named for Lee, Vocativ found. Another 11 are named for Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and at least four are named for General Stonewall Jackson, including a high school in Prince William County, Va.

Two years ago in Virginia's Arlington County, a liberal enclave just outside Washington, D.C., a parent asked the school board to consider changing the name of Washington-Lee High School, which honors generals George Washington and Robert E. Lee.

“Why do we continue to honor Robert E. Lee with the rarified tribute of a high school name in our progressive county?” John Schachter said. “It’s likely inertia, at best. Or racism, at worst. Or some misguided so-called Southern pride to some extent. ... Lee deserves no honor for fighting on the wrong side for the wrong cause.”

His request went nowhere. Washington-Lee retains its name, and its sports teams are still known as the Generals. A spokeswoman for Arlington Public Schools said Wednesday that within the past week the school system has received one e-mail raising concerns about the continued use of the name.

Last year, Virginia’s Washington and Lee University — which has ties to George Washington and to Lee, who was the school’s president after the Civil War — expressed regret for the school’s past ownership of slaves and promised to remove Confederate flags that had hung in its Lee Chapel since 1930. The move came after a group of black students protested that the school was unwelcoming to minorities.

Washington and Lee University to remove Confederate flags following protests

School systems are becoming more sensitive to the potential for controversy over names, according to a 2007 study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, which found that it has become much less common for schools to be named after people, as school districts opt instead for names that are more generic, such as geographic features or patriotic themes.

Three researchers in the 2007 study found that 45 percent of public schools built in New Jersey before 1948 were named after people, compared with 27 percent of schools built after 1988. They found similar patterns in Minnesota, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Ohio and Wisconsin.

“Of almost 3,000 public schools in Florida, five honor George Washington, compared to 11 named after manatees,” the researchers wrote. “In the last two decades, a public school built in Arizona was almost fifty times more likely to be named after such things as a mesa or a cactus than after a president.”

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Some schools are reconsidering Confederacy-related mascots. The school board in Fort Smith, Ark., citing "the continuing impact of perceived symbols of racism on the community, state and nation" on its Facebook page, voted to stop using "Dixie" as the fight song for Southside High School and to phase out the school's "Rebel" mascot.

But some efforts have pushed in the opposite direction.

Last year, students and alumni from a Richmond-area high school sought to revive the school’s historic mascot, a Confederate soldier known as the “Rebel Man,” spurring debate about the appropriateness of public school connections to the Civil War and its icons. More than 1,200 students, alumni and parents with connections to Henrico County’s Douglas S. Freeman High School signed a petition calling on the administration to use its Rebel mascot — which dates to the 1950s — for the school’s athletic events.

The school opted to keep "Rebels" as its team name after administrators made plans to field a new mascot without ties to the Confederacy. They decided not to field a lion as their mascot but continue to be known as the "Freeman Rebels."