Virginia School Board Set To Rename J.E.B. Stuart High School

Oct 25, 2017
Originally published on November 6, 2017 10:32 am

For nearly 60 years, Northern Virginia students have attended J.E.B. Stuart High School, named after a Confederate general who died in battle. Now, after a contentious dispute, the Fairfax County School Board is expected to vote to change the school's name.

The debate has dragged on for two years and has included raucous community forums and testy board meetings.

The community surrounding the Falls Church, Va., school was at one point asked to vote on possible new names, only to find out later the public vote was nonbinding and the Fairfax County School Board has the final say.

Denise Patton, a former history teacher (she did not teach at Stuart) who lives four blocks from the school, says changing the name is like trying to erase the past.

"I'm dismayed people engage in presentism instead of thoroughly studying history," Patton said.

James Ewell Brown — "J.E.B." — Stuart was born in Virginia and is an icon of the Confederacy, heralded for his military prowess. Patton says Stuart was known for his mastery of reconnaissance and ability to keep Union soldiers at bay in battles not far from where the school is located.

"He kept them back for months. He was a tactician and a strategist," she said.

The vote at this high school comes as the recent debates about the best way to treat symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces have gained momentum.

Patton is known as a "Keeper" — someone who wants the J.E.B. Stuart name to stay. She says the Civil War should be put into context. And those who approved the school's name when it opened in 1959 should not be thought of as racist.

"How we think about the Civil War today is not how people viewed the Civil War then," Patton said. "Some of these people had grandparents that fought in the Civil War. They weren't taught that these people were evil."

Not everyone agrees.

The most famous people on the "Changer" side — those advocating that Stuart's name be removed — are Stuart alumni Julianne Moore, the Oscar-winning actress, and movie producer Bruce Cohen. They started an online petition two years ago, which says, "No one should have to apologize for the name of the public high school you attended and the history of racism it represents. ..."

The petition has gotten nearly 40,000 signatures.

At a meeting of the Fairfax County School Board earlier this month, board member Karen Keys-Gamarra said that the protests over the removal of a Confederate statue in Virginia this summer that turned deadly underscored why the name has to go.

"I, like I think many of you, was struck by what happened in Charlottesville. And so now I really do think that we need to make a clean break from the past," she said.

She wants the school to be named after the first black Supreme Court justice.

"We need to replace this injustice to our community I believe with justice. And that is why I support the name Justice Thurgood Marshall, as I expect the school will be known as Justice High School," Keys-Gamarra said. (Fairfax County already has a school with Marshall in its name, George C. Marshall High School.)

Justice is one of a handful of new names the school board is considering. Another is simply Stuart, dropping the initials. School board member Karen Corbett Sanders hopes that option can provide a middle ground.

"I fully believe we should take the name J.E.B off the name of the school. I would like to see us consider combining names, which has been done elsewhere in the county," Sanders said.

It is a near certainty that when the school board votes Thursday, J.E.B Stuart High's name will be no more. The estimated price tag for changing everything — from names on buildings to band uniforms and even the mascot, currently the J.E.B. Stuart Raiders — is nearly $1 million.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

J.E.B. Stuart High School in northern Virginia has been around for almost 60 years. It was named after a Confederate Army general who died in battle a year before the Civil War ended. And that's come up in the debate that's emerged about the best way to treat symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces. Tomorrow, the Fairfax County School Board will vote on changing the school's name. NPR's Brakkton Booker has more.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: A long line of buses rush students home as the school day ends in Falls Church, Va. Denise Patton is outside of J.E.B. Stuart High. She's a longtime resident here who says changing the name of the school is like trying to erase the past.

DENISE PATTON: I am dismayed that today people engage in presentism instead really study - thoroughly studying history.

BOOKER: James Ewell Brown Stuart was born in Virginia, and his military prowess is legendary. Patton says he was known for his mastery of reconnaissance and ability to keep Union soldiers at bay in battles not far from where the school is located.

PATTON: And he kept them back for months. He was a tactician and a strategist.

BOOKER: Patton is known as a keeper, someone who wants the J.E.B. Stuart name to stay. She says the Civil War should be put in context, and those who approved the school's name when it opened in 1959 shouldn't be thought of as racist.

PATTON: How we think about the Civil war today is not how people viewed the Civil War then. Some of these people had grandparents who fought in the Civil War. They weren't taught that these people were evil.

BOOKER: Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore and movie producer Bruce Cohen - both Stuart alums - created an online petition. It's got nearly 40,000 signatures supporting the name change. Karen Keys-Gamarra is on the Fairfax County School Board. She says the deadly white supremacist protests over the removal of a Confederate statue in Virginia this summer underscores why the name has got to go.

KAREN KEYS-GAMARRA: I, like I think many of you, was struck by what happened in Charlottesville. And so now I really do think that we need to make a clean break from the past.

BOOKER: She wants the school to be named after the first black Supreme Court justice.

KEYS-GAMARRA: We need to replace this injustice to our community I believe with justice, and that is why I support the name Justice Thurgood Marshall, as I expect the school will be known as Justice High School.

BOOKER: Justice is one of a handful of new names the school board is considering. Another is simply Stuart, dropping the J.E.B. Board member Karen Corbett Sanders hopes that option can provide a middle ground.

KAREN CORBETT SANDERS: I fully believe we should take J.E.B. of the name at the school. I would like to see us consider combining names on the school, which has been done elsewhere in the country.

BOOKER: When the board votes tomorrow, it's a near certainty that J.E.B. Stuart High School's name will be no more. The estimated price tag to change everything from names on buildings to band uniforms, even the mascot, currently the J.E.B. Stuart Raiders, is nearly $1 million. Brakkton Booker, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.