|Stuart High School students who support a name change for the school held a rally in November in front of Stuart.|
The name of JEB Stuart High School should be changed because “along with the name, comes a history of racism, inequality, and oppression,” Stuart senior Lidia Amanuel told the Fairfax County school board Dec. 17 at a public hearing on a proposal to change the board’s policy on school names.
Stuart is a diverse school with students from more than 70 countries, and “many of us don’t identify with the ideals of the Confederacy that JEB Stuart stood for,” Amanuel said. Changing the name would end the school system’s “tolerance of institutionalized racism.”
Later that evening, the school board voted unanimously to adopt a new policy on school names. The measure, proposed by board member Sandy Evans (Mason), doesn’t specifically address Stuart High School, which is named for a Confederate general, or any other school, but it does clear the way for such a proposal to be introduced later.
Under the current policy, school names can only be changed if the use of the building changes. “This modest revision would permit the school board to change a name if there is a good reason to do so,” Evans said.
During the board discussion before the vote, at-large member Ted Velkoff said he supports the goal of eradicating racism and honoring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, as many of those who support a name change for Stuart recommend, but warned against a wholesale renaming of schools, noting “Civil War history is complicated.”
The possibility of having two high schools named Marshall “could potentially be a stumbling block,” he said. The other one is named for Gen. George C. Marshall. Instead, he suggested naming an elementary or middle school for Thurgood Marshall.
“There is no way we’re going to have two Marshall high schools,” said board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield). She proposed renaming Stuart for former President Ronald Reagan, citing his leadership in establishing a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King. She also warned against going too far in changing names, although in the end she voted for the policy change.
Everyone who spoke at the public hearing urged the school board to change the name of Stuart High School to honor Justice Marshall.
Stephen Spitz, a Lake Barcroft resident and retired civil rights and constitutional law attorney, said, “Justice Marshall was not only the leading advocate arguing for the abolition of racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, but was also a legendary defender of equal protection of the laws for everyone. He is the perfect symbol of the diversity of the student body at the high school and would be a wonderful inspiration to the students, the faculty, the administration, the staff, and the larger community.”
“Make no mistake. JEB Stuart High School was not named to honor a Confederate general’s role in the Civil War,” Spitz said. ”The school was named as part of Virginia’s ‘massive resistance’ to school integration.”
After the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown that separate schools for black and white students were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional, segregationists who controlled the government in Virginia, “were determined to defy the Brown decision,” he said.
During that period, recounted in the new book, A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story, by Tom Gjelten, Virginia mandated the closure of any school under an integration order and cut off state funding for any school that attempted on its own to integrate, Spitz said. “When the school board in Arlington County dared to propose a modest integration plan, the state board of education rejected the plan and fired the entire Arlington board.”
“Fairfax County officials did not merely refuse to comply with the Supreme Court’s order, they defiantly named their next two high schools after Confederate Army generals: JEB Stuart and Robert E. Lee,” he said.
Spitz urged the school to rename Stuart High School for Justice Thurgood Marshall “to help Fairfax County move forward into the 21st century instead of continuing to honor its troubled past.”
Jessica Swanson, who lives near Stuart, also called upon the school board to rename the school for Marshall, noting he was a longtime foe of segregation, chief architect of the legal strategy to end segregation, argued the Brown case before the Supreme Court, and was the first African American Supreme Court justice.
Marshall dedicated his life to bringing us together,” Swanson said, and was not, like Stuart, “dedicated to fighting to tear us apart.”
Changing the name of a school may seen a low priority compared to budget cuts and achievement gaps, “but small indignities matter, symbolism matters,” said Tina Hone, a former school board member and head of the Coalition of The Silence, a group advocating for minority students.
The anti-integrationists who chose the name Stuart “knew exactly what it symbolized,” Hone said. “Naming the school after the late great Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who lived in one of the neighborhoods that feeds into Stuart and who through his leadership in Brown v. Board of Education, changed the face of public education in this nation, would be the right symbolism.”
While some may say the name should be changed to honor a prominent Latino given the makeup of the school’s student body, Hone said, the civil rights victories won by Marshall “set the precedents on which the rights of nearly every minority community stand.”
Mike O’Brien, a member of the board of the Fairfax County NAACP, said a school named for a Confederate general is no longer appropriate in 2015.
The only good reasons to name a school for an individual are to honor someone whose values benefit the community or whose accomplishments serve as an inspiration, O’Brien said.
Stuart, on the other hand “fought in open rebellion against the government of the United States in support of slavery,” he said. Stuart High School has a significant number of students of color, and the messages they might absorb from the name of their school are,” You are less than equal than your white counterparts here,” and “this county still has a grudge against those who won the Civil War.”
The messages that the school should convey, he said, are, “we are all equal here and we are all worthy.”