“MOVED THAT the high school under construction in the Munson Hill area be named the JEB STUART HIGH SCHOOL.” That one line from minutes of the Oct. 7, 1958, meeting of the Fairfax School Board is the only record that officials have found about the school’s naming. But there is no mystery why a general who died fighting for the Confederacy was honored. At a time of Virginia’s “massive resistance” to school desegregation, officials were making a statement — one that should be repudiated by changing the school’s name.
The school board is set to vote Thursday on whether to rename the Falls Church school. The matter has been the subject of intense debate over the past two years, mirroring the struggles of other jurisdictions and institutions confronting the intertwined issues of history, identity, and the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.
Is it appropriate to make students, including those from an increasingly diverse community, attend a school that bears the name of a man who took up arms in rebellion against his country in furtherance of slavery? That essential question, posed by a group of students at Stuart in a class project, sparked a vigorous renaming campaign.
Board regulations allow a name change “where there exists some compelling need.” Opponents say no such need exists and, citing a 2016 board survey in which 56 percent of 3,414 respondents opposed a change, argue there is not sufficient support. Concern about the costs, including to replace sports uniforms, is understandable given the system’s financial needs. But there is a different kind of cost in clinging to this name.
We are not in favor of erasing history. Students at the high school, as everywhere, should study Stuart’s life and role in the Civil War. But this is not a case of a historical figure who did great things (wrote the Declaration of Independence, say) and terrible ones (owned enslaved people). Nor was he honored in the wake of the Civil War to mark the immense losses on both sides of that conflict. No, Stuart’s name was chosen a century later to send an explicit message: Black people are not welcome here. Rationalizations about his military brilliance or his love of family can’t change that.
There has been talk of a possible compromise in which J.E.B. would be dropped and the school would simply be called Stuart. That strikes us as unsatisfying, likely leaving both sides unhappy. Better that the school board do the right thing and begin a process that will result in a name for which no rationalization is needed and which can be pointed to with pride.
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