The tenth largest school district in the nation took the first step toward joining a national effort to rename K-12 and college campus buildings named after slaveowners, Confederate soldiers, and known white supremacists. Fairfax County, Virginia’s school board will now consider changing the names of three of its high schools: two named after Confederate generals and one after an opponent of desegregation.
The school board unanimously voted to change the school-naming policy, so that the board can change if they have a “compelling reason.” Before, officials could only change names if the buildings were being repurposed. Some local residents and students argue the change is necessary since the names were given to signal the school district’s resistance to desegregation efforts, and forces students to celebrate the Confederacy, according to the Washington Post.
Two high schools are named after the Confederate generals J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee, and a third is named after W.T. Woodson, a superintendent who fought desegregation. The discussion over renaming schools began when students put together a petition to rename J.E.B. Stuart High School in June, shortly after after a white supremacist shot nine black people while they sat in church. It has since been signed by over 1,250 people.
One of the school board members, Elizabeth Schultz, said she did not want to rename one of the high schools after Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, because there is already a George Marshall High School in the county. She suggested naming it after former President Ronald Reagan, saying the name would be appropriate because he signed the federal law creating Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Schultz has also opposed efforts to provide protection against LGBT teachers, staff, and students in the district. She was the lone vote against a nondiscrimination policy for teachers, staff and students of all sexual orientations last year, saying there are already too many “protected classes,” according to the Washington Post.
Advocates for the celebration of “Southern heritage” oppose the renaming efforts, saying they erase, saying it erases Southern history.
Fairfax County’s school board is not alone. According to an analysis by Vocativ, 188 schools are named after Confederates or places named after them.
In Austin, Texas, the school board voted to allow for the name change of schools after community members and students spoke out in the wake of the Charleston shooting. One of the school names up for consideration also includes Robert E. Lee Elementary School.
In San Antonio, Texas, the North East Independent School District trustees voted against changing the name of another school named after Robert E. Lee. One trustee, Shannon Grona, said she voted against the name change because, “Slavery was wrong, but we can’t rewrite history or change that it happened,” according to the San Antonio Express News.
College campuses are also moving to change the names of school buildings after student have protested the very visible legacy of slavery on college campuses. Princeton University students protested through a sit in to demand Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from campus buildings. Georgetown University decided to rename two of its campus buildings — Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall — which were named after slaveowners, after students protested. The University of Maryland also recently changed its stadium name from Byrd Stadium to Maryland Stadium after students said the stadium should not be named after a former president, Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd, who tried to deny admission to black students. Students are making similar objections at Yale University and Harvard University.