In the great memorial and monument debate of our time, what happens when a building’s name represents Confederacy worship and civil rights history?
That’s the dilemma in Arlington, where the county School Board has to decide the fate of a nondescript, buff-brick, post-and-beam school on a street called Vacation Lane.
What happened in that building was a significant moment in the nation’s herky-jerky, still-moving movement toward racial equality.
After years of protests and rancor following the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, including at least three cross burnings and Nazi marches in Arlington, four black 12-year-olds made history when they walked past the rows of helmeted officers on Feb. 2, 1959, and officially began the desegregation of Virginia’s public schools.
It’s a historic building, right? The perfect place to recognize the great moments of our true, American story.
One problem, though.
The school, in the Cherrydale section of Arlington, had an auspicious-sounding name — Stratford Junior High School. Not Shakespeare’s Stratford (upon Avon). But Stratford Hall Plantation, the birthplace of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Against the backdrop of a nationwide reckoning with the way we have chosen to mark and honor the complex, bloody and often forgotten parts of our country’s history, what do you do with this one?
The school had dropped the Stratford name in 1979. Not because of its association with Lee — we weren’t having that debate then — but rather because the county’s population was changing. Officials decided to use Stratford’s building to create a new school by merging two existing progressive programs — the Woodlawn Program and the Hoffman-Boston Program. Thus was born the highly regarded and beloved H-B Woodlawn, also known as Hippie High.
But now that H-B is moving to a new location, the building on Vacation Lane will reopen as a junior high again. And the School Board is considering bringing back the old name, which has drawn opposition from some people in the community.
“I would urge the board to steer away from the Stratford name or at least to deemphasize it because the school was named for Robert E. Lee’s birthplace,” Dusty Horwitt said in his plea to the board members. “Lee’s defining act was to fight for slavery and against our nation.”
Name it after Dorothy Hamm, one of the pioneers of integration, who was the plaintiff on the Virginia school lawsuits and who was a force in the state’s civil rights movement for 50 years.
Hamm’s half-century of fighting, of enduring threats of violence and harassment, began as a protective spark in the heart of a mother, according to the story one of her daughters, Carmela M. Hamm, told The Washington Post.
“My mother told me that the reason she decided to fight so vigorously was that my brother would pass by Stratford Junior High and say something about going to that school. And she told him it was for white boys, and he said, ‘I wish I was a white boy,’ ” Hamm recounted.
Mrs. Hamm’s son, Edward, started taking classes there seven months after that first, bold step with the four students.
Hamm went on to meet Martin Luther King Jr., to picket and to get arrested over more school and equity issues, the segregation of theaters and the poll tax.
This fall, the School Board created a naming committee. And the folks involved liked the idea of honoring Hamm after Horwitt bombarded them with a petition and testimony from one of the four kids: Michael Jones, now 71.
“It’s important that people recognize the work Dorothy Hamm did,” said Jones, who went on to serve in the Army, went to Vietnam, graduated from Fordham University and recently retired from the CIA.
The experience of the entire nation watching him walk into the school made him stronger, more resilient and more adaptable, he said. And though he doesn’t have a huge problem with the Stratford name, he is hoping the school’s new moniker will reveal something more about its history.
The naming committee heard him. It also considered Legacy Middle School, Courage Middle School, Perseverance Middle School — even the totally safe (and boring) Cherrydale Middle School — among other names. (A similar committee at Washington Lee High School suggested this week that their school be renamed Loving High School, for the famous case on interracial marriage.)
The board members wondered whether naming a school after Hamm was too much, according to their minutes. There were others involved in those years of struggle; why honor only Hamm?
But guess what? There is a school named for others. Edmund and Elizabeth Campbell were powerful advocates for desegregation, and Campbell Elementary School in Arlington honors them.
They are also both white. Dorothy Hamm, who died in 2004, was black.
So what should they do? Honor the name of the school as it was in 1959 or drop the homage to Lee and honor the person who helped make history at the building?
The naming committee couldn’t decide. So last week, it presented the School Board with two choices, and the board will have to be the tiebreaker when it votes Dec. 20.
Stratford Middle School?
Or the Dorothy Hamm Middle School at the Historic Stratford Building?
Maybe Virginia isn’t so ready to quit Lee, after all.
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