National News

Virginia School Drops Confederate General’s Name in Favor of Obama’s

Posted June 19, 2018 4:14 p.m. EDT

When students at J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia, return from their summer break, they will no longer be studying at a school named after a Confederate general who fought for the rights of slave owners in the Civil War.

Instead, members of the 400-strong student body, about 90 percent of whom are black, will be attending Barack Obama Elementary School.

On Monday night, the Richmond School Board voted to remove J.E.B. Stuart’s name from the school, replacing it with the name of the country’s first African-American president. The vote, 6-1, came after months of public meetings and input, including from students themselves.

“This is the former capital of the Confederacy, and J.E.B. Stuart is an individual who fought to preserve slavery,” said Jason Kamras, the Richmond schools superintendent. “And I couldn’t think of a more fitting change in the arc of history to have a school named after our first African-American president.”

The vote reflects part of the national conversation and action that schools, communities and cities in the United States have taken in recent years to redress the country’s Confederate and slave-owning history, particularly after a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August brought renewed attention to dozens of Confederate monuments around the country.

Monuments to Confederate figures have been removed from streets and public places. Protests have been held over the rights of citizens to display Confederate flags. In recent years, more than a dozen universities — including Brown, Harvard, Georgetown and the University of Virginia — have acknowledged their historical ties to slavery.

Other cities in Virginia have taken a look at their school systems. In February, Petersburg voted to rename three schools named after leading Confederate figures by July 1, 2018, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

Last year, the Fairfax School Board voted to remove J.E.B. Stuart’s name from a high school in Falls Church, Virginia, and replace it with Justice.

The name change in Richmond was not the first time that a school has been stripped of its Confederate nomenclature and replaced with that of the former president. In Jackson, Mississippi, last year, Davis International Baccalaureate Elementary School, which was named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, was also renamed after Obama.

But in Richmond, the decision to remove the name of James Ewell Brown Stuart, a cavalry general, and replace it with Obama’s has poignant resonance.

A city of 223,000 people, Richmond was the former capital of the Confederacy, and its streets, public plaques and monuments reflect the history of the period. A city commission is expected this year to present recommendations about what to do with monuments to such figures as Jefferson Davis or Gen. Robert E. Lee, Mayor Levar Stoney said Tuesday.

He said the school was the only one in the city named after a Confederate figure, and that the move to rename it reflected the progressiveness and diversity of the city, which is 48 percent black.

“Richmond has always been front and center in the growth of the South,” he said.

Stoney said that the vote corrected a “serious contradiction” in having students, mostly of color, attend a school named after a figure who fought to preserve slavery.

The process took several months.

Teachers, parents and community members were invited to attend public meetings and submit online suggestions. Student assemblies were held. Seven options were eventually drawn up, including Wishtree, named after a children’s book that celebrates diversity; Northside, reflecting the neighborhood; Barbara Johns, a civil rights activist; and Henry Marsh, the city’s first African-American mayor.

In the end, the students themselves were asked to pick three choices, which whittled the list down to Wishtree, Northside and Barack Obama. The school board made the final pick, reflecting the recommendation of Kamras, who served as the education adviser for Obama’s campaign in 2008.

He said the city would consider whether other schools should be renamed as well.

Kenya Gibson, the sole school board member who voted against the renaming, said she had wanted more time to discuss the possibility of naming the school after a local civil rights leader. But she still supported the result.

“I am really thankful that we finally rejected the celebratory symbols of our racist history,” she said. “In Richmond we have had lots of discussions about our monuments, and the school name is certainly a part of our legacy. It is time to move on from that.”

But Gibson, who represents the J.E.B. Stuart elementary school district in Richmond, where 40 percent of students live in poverty, said more steps were needed to rectify imbalances in the education system.

“If you really want to talk about symbols of racism, it is our derelict buildings,” she said. “If we really want to do our former president justice, we need to fund and provide a facility that doesn’t reflect the aftermath of segregation, and a stalled movement of integrating our schools in the ‘50s and ‘60s that left us with a school system that is starved for funding.”