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High School Renames After Confederate General: A History Reckoning

What’s in a name?

For many schools, names instill a sense of pride and a link to the history of a community. But occasionally, a school’s name can also spur controversy.

When the members of Virginia’s Fairfax County School Board voted to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School last week, as the Washington Post reports, it ostensibly ended a heated, years-long debate over issues of tradition and inclusion in the district’s public schools.

But, as the school looks to distance itself from a controversial figure of the Confederacy, it finds itself at the center of a broader national discussion about school branding and history. Specifically, what steps should communities take to document and recognize historical events without memorializing negative or painful attitudes of the past.

Tradition or racism?

J.E.B. Stuart was a well-known Confederate general who died during the Civil War. Somewhat ironically, his high school namesake happens to be one of the most diverse in Fairfax County, with nearly 78 percent of students being non-white.

Those opposed to the school board’s 7-2 decision see it as an attempt to erase a major of part of Virginia history and tradition. On the other hand, supporters of the change note that the school wasn’t given the name until 1958, as a means to influence—or even intimidate—the emerging debate over school integration.

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As Ryan McElveen, a school board member who supported the name change, said during last week’s meeting:

“It was not appropriate for this board to name a school for J.E.B. Stuart in 1958. It would not be appropriate for this board to name a school for J.E.B. Stuart today; and it is time for the Fairfax County School Board to do as we teach our students—learn from the mistakes of history, do our best to correct them, and move on.”

A community-led decision

As the Washington Post reports, the discussion surrounding the name change began nearly two years ago with a student-led campaign. That inspired an online petition backed by Hollywood actor Julianne Moore and producer Bruce Cohen, who attended the school in the 1970s. That petition eventually received some 35,000 signatures.

Per the board’s decision, the school will continue under the current name until Superintendent Dr. Scott Brabrand can seek feedback and ideas about new names from the local community. The school board then plans to vote on the superintendent’s recommendation sometime before 2019.

The Fairfax County School Board also called on teachers to include history lessons about the names of all the district’s schools and campuses in the upcoming school year.

The board did not make any decisions on several other schools named after Confederate leaders.

Fairfax County’s decision is already being cited as part of a larger trend by city (New Orleans), state (South Carolina), and local officials throughout the country to reexamine whether symbols of the Confederacy are appropriate in public settings in 2017.

For schools in the south that either already are or soon might encounter similar controversies, Fairfax County’s community-inspired approach represents an intriguing model for engaging students, parents, and others in honest conversations about controversial issues.

What do you think of the Fairfax County school board’s decisions? Is your school or district facing similar controversies? How are you engaging your community on the issue? Tell us in the comments.