How a high school named after a Confederate general came to terms with its history—and decided to change it.

J.E.B. Stuart High School

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.

About the Author

Todd Kominiak
Todd is Managing Editor of TrustED. Email: tkominiak@k12insight.com.

2 Comments on "How a high school named after a Confederate general came to terms with its history—and decided to change it."

  1. Robert S Harris | August 2, 2017 at 10:39 pm | Reply

    It is a true wonderment to me how the 21st Century politically correct can decide that they want to change History so it is more to their liking!! The 19th Century , when the Confederacy existed for four short years was a truly different time with different attitudes and morals on the part of all Americans that could not be adopted or used today. Some people in 2017 may not like these memories of times past,but they cannot be erased by tearing down monuments to brave American Soldiers and changing the names of Schools!!!!

  2. My goodness, the far left PC crowd has overdone it this time renaming the High School from which I graduated from in 1972. Pretty ironic since J.E.B. Stuart owned no slaves during the civil war in which he died to defend his home state of Virginia. The far left need only look at Fairfax county (named after an English slaveholder) in which the High School is located to see a further target for renaming. Washington and Jefferson were slave holders as well so we should expect the far left to attempt to rename our nation’s capital and strike them from our history books in the future. The school board’s decision only reflects a further decline in the moral values they are instilling in children being taught in their district. The High School name was a non-issue while I attended; however, a senseless and needless name change now would change my very memories of High School days and profoundly disgust me until I go to my grave.
    I sincerely believe the decision for changing the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School should have been limited to a vote by the alumni of the school instead of local petitions generated from the radical left from people with “no skin in the game” and a school board as far removed from reality as any petitioners who never attended the school.

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