Falls Church and Fairfax County officials are revisiting efforts to rename schools with names linked to the Confederacy as communities across the U.S. tackle a racial reckoning.
The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of police killing George Floyd in Minneapolis has reignited discussions of how buildings, monuments and places with Confederate ties perpetuate racial oppression.
The push to remove names and images linked to the Confederacy at local schools isn’t new.
Fairfax County officials renamed JEB Stuart High School to Justice High School in 2017, with students changing the mascot in 2018. Fairfax High School’s principal changed the mascot this year. A few weeks ago, the Fairfax County School Board voted to rename Robert E. Lee High School to honor late U.S. Congressman John Lewis.
Tysons Reporter looked into how the two public school systems have tackled the renaming issue this summer and what’s coming up for schools in the Tysons area.
Falls Church Moving Forward With Renamings
After several meetings and hundreds of public comments, the Falls Church City School Board made the decision to move forward with renaming George Mason High School and Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in late June. Both Founding Fathers were slaveholders.
A few months ago, a petition with more than 250 signatures and growing public pressure prompted the school board to start considering the name changes in the second week of June.
“We’re at a point where it’s time to really begin the conversation,” Greg Anderson, the school board’s chair, said at a school board meeting this summer.
One of the biggest renaming questions the school board tackled is whether or not to hire a consultant to aid in the process, with some members saying it was a good idea in order to maintain neutrality and to gather more information about Mason and Jefferson and others pointing out the costs.
“Lots of folks don’t really know the history of who he is,” School Board member Lawrence Webb said about Mason.
The school board resolved that dilemma this week by voting to hire Herndon-based K-12 Insight to conduct the surveys, the Falls Church News-Press reported.
Now that the school board has approved moving forward with the renaming process, they will need to decide what the new names will be.
The school board wants to make sure the renaming process isn’t rushed, agreeing that it’s important to get many perspectives on this issue.
“I think we need to take our time so we know what the community has to say,” said Susan Dimock.
Uncertain Future for FCPS Names in Tysons
This year, the Fairfax County School Board has taken strides in renaming schools tied to prominent people in the Confederacy. However, it’s still to be determined what will happen to the names of two Tysons-area schools.
The school board approved a proposal last fall that would allow the board to rename schools to “reflect an inclusive, respectful learning environment as outlined in our adopted One Fairfax Policy.”
The proposal noted that there are six FCPS schools and one facility with names tied to the Confederacy. Two of them are located in the Tysons area — Haycock Elementary School in McLean and Shrevewood Elementary School in the Falls Church area. Both elementary schools are named after families who had family members who served the Confederacy, according to research compiled for FCPS.
“I welcome a conversation around all of these schools and all of these symbols,” School Board Member Karl Frisch told Tysons Reporter when asked about Shrevewood Elementary School, which is located in his district.
Frisch represents the Providence District on the school board and helped start the renaming consideration for Mosby Woods Elementary School in Fairfax.
Elaine Tholen, who represents the Dranesville District on the school board, said that she would prefer to wait for “significant community interest” in changing the names of Haycock Elementary School or other school names with looser connections to the Confederacy.
“Of course, I am always open to listening to the concerns,” Tholen said.
Fairfax County School Board members Tysons Reporter spoke to drew a distinction between schools named after Confederate generals and ones named after families with links to the Confederacy or slavery.
“I think those are names that definitely need to be changed,” Tholen told Tyson Reporter about schools named after Confederate generals or people who held senior positions in the Confederate Army.
According to FCPS documents, Shrevewood was named in 1966, while Haycock was named in 1954. “[Haycock] was named for Haycock Road, which was named for the Haycock family… Shrevewood Elementary School was named for the Shrevewood residential housing subdivision,” according to FCPS documents.
Kimberly Boateng, the school board’s former student representative who helped lead the effort to rename Robert E. Lee High School, echoed a similar sentiment. “It gets messy and really blurred,” she said.
Boateng said that understanding the intent behind the naming could help solve the puzzle, saying that Justice High School’s former name was “very clearly to intimate Black students during the age of integration.” Prominence should also factor like, especially when it comes to how supportive the person or family was of the Confederacy, she said.
When weighing in on the renamings in Falls Church, Mayor David Tarter said in an interview with the Falls Church News-Press last week that he wants the city to be able to “consider our past,” but called Jefferson and Mason’s names on schools “a more complex case.”
“I understand those who believe that no person who owned another, no matter what era, should be lauded,” Tarter told the local newspaper. “Jefferson and Mason participated in and profited from this most odious institution. They also played significant roles in the founding of the nation and creating our system of government, including the Bill of Rights.”
Critics of name changes in Northern Virginia have previously argued about the associated costs, impact on alumni and erasure of history. Even some supporters of renamings questions whether the time and resources spent on the renamings pull the attention from other ways of working towards equity in the community.
Both Fairfax County and Falls Church school board members noted that they still need to pay attention to the student experience as a whole.
Falls Church School Board member Laura Downs agreed that students of color may not have a problem with the name as much as they have a problem with the way Civil Rights and slavery are taught in the curriculum.
“I think the African-American experience in this country is not taught to our students at all,” said Webb, another school board member in Falls Church.
Boateng, the former student representative for Fairfax County, said she didn’t learn the harrowing history of the Civil War until she took an IB class on the history of America.
“I had no idea certain things went on,” she said, questioning if she would have received the same information in a general education course. “The fact it took me 16 long years to figure out — at school they teach you slavery happened and that was bad.”
In addition to the names, school boards face unprecedented issues, including time-sensitive decisions on how school systems return in the fall during the pandemic and new pressure from educators, families and Fairfax County NAACP to combat racism.
“There are no shortage of issues that demand our urgent attention,” Frisch said, adding that he wants conversations about the school names and symbols coupled with the other issues.
“Make Sure All of Our Students Feel Valued”
Some of the school board members said they think a combination of Floyd’s killing and the current Fairfax County School Board’s heightened sensitivity to making students and staff feel welcome will move the conversation forward.
“I think it’s just that the current board, in particular, wants to make sure all of our students feel valued and included in our school community,” Tholen said. “If these are things we need to look at for that to happen, these are certainly things we are willing to look at.”
“I think there are a lot of well-meaning white people who, until recently, did not feel the urgency these issues demand,” Frisch said, noting that Floyd’s killing served as a catalyst for “many people to consider things that perhaps they hadn’t in the past.”
Boateng stressed the importance of getting local families and residents involved in the renaming process and also said that the age of the students at the schools can play an important role in the renaming push.
“There aren’t going to be 11-year-olds [pushing] to change their school name,” she said. “It would have to come from the parents.”
Going forward, Boateng said she’d also like to see a system in place that prompts the Fairfax County School Board to respond if the public pressure for a renaming reaches a certain threshold.
“I think that’s what took Lee so long, Justice so long,” she said. “They [the school board members] were waiting for everyone else to do it. That’s how things stay the way they are.”
Article by Catherine Douglas Moran and Madeline Taylor
Photo by Michelle Goldchain