The moniker of a Confederate general will be stripped from a Richmond elementary school and replaced with the name of the nation’s first African American president, the latest example of a Southern city seeking to address vestiges of segregation.
Richmond’s school board voted 6 to 1 Monday night to rename J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School after President Barack Obama. The change was recommended by school district Superintendent Jason Kamras before earning the board’s endorsement, schools spokeswoman Kenita Bowers said.
Kamras saw the renaming as an opportunity to honor a “prominent African American figure” who resonated with students, Bowers said, noting that the name is especially powerful given Richmond’s history: It was the capital of the Confederacy.
“I’m thrilled that the students of J.E.B. Stuart — who recommended Barack Obama as one of their top choices for the new name — will now have the opportunity to attend a school that honors a leader who represents the great promise of America,” Kamras said in a statement.
The central Virginia elementary school became the latest Southern institution to reconsider Confederate imagery in public life. That debate flared after an August rally by white supremacists and white nationalists in Charlottesville turned deadly.
In Richmond, school system officials solicited suggestions and feedback on the renaming online and during public meetings in May and June, Bowers said. A renaming team consisting of teachers, students and administrators was assembled to spark community engagement.
Student input was sought with a vote on the leading suggestions, and Obama generated the second-highest tally, according to school district documents. The top choice was “Northside,” which is the neighborhood where the school sits. “Wishtree,” a book read by students that carries a message about tolerance, came in third.
More than 320 students were enrolled at the elementary school, which is about 92 percent black, in the 2017-2018 academic year, according to state data.
The renaming is expected to cost $26,000, with a stone facade, signs, stationery, and shirts for students and staff members updated with the new name, district documents state.
School board Chairwoman Dawn Paige said having Obama’s name on the school would send a message to students that they could aspire to be president.
“This process really meant a lot to our students, knowing that they had a say-so in the renaming of their school,” Paige said.
One school board member, Kenya Gibson, who represents the elementary school’s neighborhood, voted against the renaming because she said she wanted to give community members more time to weigh in.
Gibson said the names of influential local leaders could have surfaced as options with more time. Still, she said she was thrilled that the school’s new name “more closely reflects the values that I hold and we hold as a city.”
But, she said, the school system could do more to address what she views as other symbols of segregation, including decrepit school buildings; voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum in November to modernize the city’s school facilities without imposing additional taxes. “If we want to truly make good on the promise of equal education for all students, then we need to address these crumbling facilities,” Gibson said.
The renaming of the Richmond school happened days after New Haven, Conn., broke ground on the Barack H. Obama Magnet University School.
The Fairfax School Board decided in the fall to rename J.E.B. Stuart High School, changing it to Justice High and ending a two-year debate. Name-change supporters insisted that it was inappropriate to honor a cavalry commander who fought to preserve slavery, while those who wanted to keep the Stuart name said the change was a costly effort that amounted to erasing history.