One of the nation’s largest school districts has amended its school-naming policy, opening the door for changes to schools that honor Confederate generals and evoke the school system’s legacy of resisting integration.
Students, community members and alumni in Fairfax County have been agitating to change the names of two high schools named for Confederate generals — J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee — and a third honoring a past superintendent, W.T. Woodson, who was an opponent of desegregation.
The school board voted unanimously Thursday to alter the policy that barred officials from changing the names of school buildings unless the building was repurposed. Under the new policy, the board also can change a name “where some other compelling need exists.”
Those who lined up to speak in favor of changing the names linked to the Confederacy and segregation said they definitely have a “compelling need.”
Lee and Stuart high schools opened in the late 1950s, as Fairfax County battled desegregation orders. Many believe that the naming of the schools for Confederate generals was a way to send a message to black students that they were not welcome. Stuart did not admit black students until 1961.
“Make no mistake; J.E.B. Stuart High School was not named to honor a Confederate general’s role in the Civil War,” said Stephen Spitz, a neighborhood resident who has litigated school desegregation cases. “The school was named as part of Virginia’s massive resistance to school integration.”
Lidia Amanuel, 17, a Stuart senior and an Eritrean immigrant, said the school’s name disgusts her and her classmates, who are part of the most diverse high school in the county.
“This change is imperative to revise the original message that was sent to the people of color,” Amanuel said. “My values are challenged when I am forced to celebrate the Confederacy to express the love of my school.”
The campaign to change the schools’ names began in June, after the fatal shooting of nine black members of a church in Charleston, S.C., by a self-proclaimed white supremacist, which spurred officials across the country to reexamine monuments and institutions named for Confederate figures and others who defended slavery. That scrutiny has expanded to include statesmen and leaders who backed segregation.
Students and alumni started a petition in June to change the name of Stuart. In August, two famous alumni — actress Julianne Moore and director Bruce Cohen — lent their name to the cause, starting a second petition to rename the school for Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice and a former Fairfax County resident. The latter petition has garnered nearly 35,000 signatures.
Other community members have expressed opposition to changing the name, starting their own petitions. The school board, while voting unanimously to change district policy, hinted that they disagreed over whether the name should be changed and if Thurgood Marshall would be an appropriate replacement.
“What’s the cost that’s associated? What’s to be gained?” said board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), who added that she is wary of changing the name. She said she could not support renaming the high school for Thurgood Marshall because there’s already a Marshall High School, named for George C. Marshall, in Falls Church. But she suggested an alternative, honoring the man who founded Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Ronald Wilson Reagan High School.