While this change is a big step forward for Arlington and Virginia, it has made me realize that racism is so pervasive that even those of us who want to overcome it and recognize it elsewhere can overlook our own.
I was one of many Arlingtonians who called for Lee’s name to be removed from Washington-Lee, but I regret that before 2017, I was proud of the name and treated Arlington’s other Confederate monuments as normal and inoffensive. I was not alone.
These beliefs were out of place in a county that is home to Virginia’s first integrated public school, now named Dorothy Hamm Middle School. They were also inconsistent with my own efforts to publicly recognize the Arlingtonians who fought for integration, including Hamm, an African American civil rights activist from Arlington who helped integrate the school. In the 1990s, I worked with state legislators to place an official Virginia historic marker outside the school (then H-B Woodlawn and previously Stratford Junior High, the latter in honor of Lee’s plantation birthplace) to recognize its historic status.
Why, at the same time, was I oblivious to the racist meaning of our Confederate monuments?
My explanation begins in the mid-1970s, when my parents, newly arrived in Arlington from the Chicago suburbs, sent me to preschool at an Arlington County-operated building still named Lee Center. The name’s origin is unclear, but it probably honors Robert E. Lee. It is situated on Lee Highway. Before I was in kindergarten, Arlington was teaching me that we should respect a leading defender of slavery. These messages continued as I grew older and learned about Jefferson Davis Highway, named for the president of the Confederacy, an elementary school named for Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson and, of course, Washington-Lee. I never heard that there might be a problem with these names.
Confederate memorials and monuments were so normalized that I still had few concerns about them by the time I reached high school and knew that the Confederacy had been fighting to preserve slavery. I remember playing baseball for Washington-Lee against J.E.B. Stuart High School, also named for a Confederate general (now named Justice High School). While wearing my Washington-Lee uniform, I thought: “How can J.E.B. Stuart High School be named for a Confederate general? That’s racist!” It didn’t cross my mind that my thoughts might apply to my own school.
My lack of understanding stretched beyond Arlington and deep into the 2000s. In 2012, when President Barack Obama spoke at Washington-Lee, I didn’t see the contradiction between our first African American president and a monument to Lee nor, apparently, did anyone else. I viewed the school’s name as simply a tribute to two great Virginia generals, a sanitized interpretation of history.
A critical mass of people, including me, opened our eyes after the racist violence in Charlottesville in 2017 related to the city’s attempt to remove a statue of Lee. This tragedy exposed the revisionist history that inaccurately portrayed Lee as honorable, disassociated from support for slavery. The event also illuminated the fact that from the 1890s to the 1920s, white Southerners established Confederate monuments primarily to intimidate African Americans and to reassert white supremacy after Reconstruction. Several of Arlington’s Confederate monuments were consistent with this movement, including Washington-Lee, which was named and opened in 1925.
The good news is that because of our growing understanding of slavery and its legacy, we have begun to remove our Confederate monuments that have helped distort our understanding of history. Jefferson Davis Highway became Richmond Highway this year. The challenge is that racism is so deeply ingrained that even well-intentioned people may not see it. Overcoming racism will require proactive self-examination and education. Important steps include removing our remaining Confederate monuments; improving school education about racism, as Virginia’s new Commission on African American History in the Commonwealth is intended to do; and finding ways, especially among white people, to discuss and challenge the racism we are overlooking every day.