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 battle, the Fairfax County School Board will 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 graduates 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 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 Corbet 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.