A movement to change the name of a high school honoring Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart has gained support from Hollywood, including a pair of Oscar-winners, actress Julianne Moore and producer Bruce Cohen, who both attended the school in the 1970s.
Stuart High, in Fairfax County, Va., opened in 1959 amid heightened racial tension after the U.S. Supreme Court decision five years earlier that ordered the desegregation of public schools. The choice to use Stuart for the school’s name was widely seen as a not-so-veiled attack on that decision.
A group of Stuart students and alumni began a campaign to change the school’s name in June, after the shootings of nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C., ignited new criticism of symbols that honor the Confederacy and its defense of slavery during the Civil War. Moore and Cohen started a new Change.org petition that has drawn more attention to the renaming effort. It has garnered more than 25,000 signatures.
“We name our buildings, monuments, and parks after exalted and heroic individuals as a way to honor them, and inspire ourselves to do better and reach for more in our own lives,” Moore said in a statement to The Washington Post. “It is reprehensible to me that in this day and age a school should carry and celebrate the name of a person who fought for the enslavement of other human beings. I think the students of this school deserve better than that moniker.”
Stuart now serves a student body that is among the most racially diverse in a county that serves the 10th-largest student population in the United States. Almost half the school’s students — 49 percent — are Hispanic, while 24 percent are white, 14 percent are Asian and 11 percent are black. Six in 10 students at Stuart — the highest percentage in Fairfax — qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a federal measure of poverty.
Moore and Cohen are pushing for the Fairfax County School Board to rename the school after Thurgood Marshall, who represented the NAACP in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case before becoming a Supreme Court justice.
The two film industry heavyweights met as eighth-graders at nearby Glasgow Middle School and grew up to forge a close personal and professional relationship in Hollywood. Moore attended Stuart from 1975 to 1977 before moving to Germany with her family, and Cohen graduated with the Stuart class of 1979.
Cohen said he and Moore first performed together during their freshman year at Stuart, in a production of “Once in a Lifetime.”
“Needless to say, she was a much better actor than I was, hence why I ended up behind the camera,” Cohen said.
Moore went on to become a celebrated actress who has appeared in such films as “Boogie Nights” (1997), “The Big Lebowski” (1998) and “Still Alice” (2014), winning the Academy Award for her role as a college professor, wife and mother diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Cohen became a producer behind such films as “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), “Milk” (2008) and “American Beauty” (1999), which earned him an Oscar for best picture.
He and Moore worked together professionally on the 2004 thriller “The Forgotten,” which Cohen produced with Moore in the leading role.
It is not the first time the pair have united for social causes, having previously lent their names to campaigns supporting LGBT rights.
Cohen said that when he was a student at Stuart, a giant Confederate flag was displayed in the gymnasium, painted at the center of the basketball court.
“It’s something that embarrassingly none of us stopped to think, ‘How did our school get this name?’ ” Cohen said. “It was more like this embarrassing shrug.”
Cohen said that he and Moore decided to focus their attention on changing the name of Stuart after recently learning about the student-led effort.
“The reason why it was never changed is because students never said it was wrong,” Cohen said. “Now that’s changed . . . finally, there’s real momentum.”
The Charleston shootings led to a widespread reexamination of the historical traces of the Confederacy in schools and public spaces.
The Confederate battle flag was taken down from the capital grounds in South Carolina, and the University of Texas recently announced that it is moving a statute of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to an indoor exhibit.