The Fairfax County School Board voted unanimously to revise its name changing policy at the Thursday, Dec. 17 school board meeting at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church. The vote to change the school system’s naming policy, which now allows the school board to consider a change in the name of a school or facility where some other compelling need exists, was a necessary step in a concerted community effort to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School.
There is a compelling need, according to many members of the Falls Church area of Fairfax County, to change the name of Stuart. The school was named after a Confederate general when it opened in 1959, some say as a last gasp effort to intimidate Black students poised to integrate the school at the end of Virginia’s massive resistance to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka.
Several members of the local community who are organizing to get the school board to change the name of Stuart were present at the meeting, some of whom urged the school board to change the its naming policy.
Lidia Amanuel, a 17-year-old senior at Stuart and one of five students who founded the Students for Change organization to fight for a name change earlier this year, kicked off the public comment period of the meeting.
“We’re all really excited,” Amanuel said moments after speaking to the school board. “After I spoke, all of the other people spoke very eloquently. It was really great to see that others were speaking in support of our cause and the cause of the community.”
When Amanuel, Abby Conde, Marley Finley, Anna Rowan and Cassie Marcotty began organizing their fellow students and the surrounding community to get the school’s name changed, they were told in an initial meeting with Fairfax County School Board vice president and Mason District representative Sandy Evans to survey the community to gauge its feelings on changing the school’s name. That was over the summer.
Now, there are several different stakeholders in the school’s community, including local community activists, residents who live in the Sleepy Hollow neighborhood where Stuart is located and current and former students – including Oscar-award winning actress Julianne Moore and Oscar-award winning producer Bruce Cohen, organizing in support of a name change.
“It gives me hope that this is a step forward really erasing the burden that America’s been holding. It’s been perpetuating even though these bills have been passing and these laws got past and you see people neglecting this as an issue,” Amanuel said. “So to see the support from the school board and progress it really gives you hope for the future. Hopefully we’ll be able to deal with different issues instead of dealing with the same issues that we’ve been dealing with for hundreds of years.”
There was a long view, both into the past and into the future, in the comments of those who spoke in support of changing the school board’s naming policy, with an eye toward the ultimate goal of getting Stuart’s name changed. Roughly 20 people stood up each time a speaker who spoke in favor of the name change took the podium.
“In the greater scheme of things like budget cuts and achievement gaps, we know it seems like it’s not an important issue,” said Tina Hone, a former at-large member of the Fairfax County School Board, during the meeting’s public comment period. “But these things matter. Symbolism matters. The name Stuart High School was chosen after Brown v. Board of Education. The anti-integrationists chose the name because they knew the symbolism. It is well past time to get the symbolism right.”
Jessica Swanson, a resident of Patrick Henry Drive in the Sleepy Hollow neighborhood of Falls Church where Stuart is located, was one those who spoke in favor of changing the school board’s naming policy and, ultimately, changing the name of Stuart. She said that several of her neighbors are in support of changing the name.
Swanson, Hone and several others in support of changing Stuart’s name want to rename the school after Thurgood Marshall, the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in Brown vs. Board of Education and a former resident of Lake Barcroft, a neighborhood in Stuart’s school district.
“It’s been an ongoing conversation of how the name is inappropriate,” Swanson said. “And as students started mobilizing around getting it changed, I think that’s going give it the momentum that we need. And then it’s pretty amazing that Thurgood Marshall happened to live in our community, so to have this alternative that honors someone who lived among us makes the change even more possible.”
Recent acts of racism, like the murder of nine Black people in Charleston, SC in June, may have added momentum to the Students of Change movement, but the discussion about the controversial nature of Stuart’s naming has been going on for several years.
Georgie Jones, a sophomore at the University of Maryland-College Park studying government and politics and a 2014 graduate of Stuart, attended the December 17 school board meeting in support of the name change effort. She said that students were discussing the history behind the name of Stuart when she went to the school. She said that some of the teachers at the school integrated the history of the school’s naming into some of her lessons at the school.
On Friday, Dec. 11, the University of Maryland Board of Regents voted to change the name of a stadium at the University of Maryland-College Park honoring Harry C. Byrd after students at the school began organizing to get the name changed because of his segregationist history. Jones said that she is moved by the success of these movements at her current and former schools.
“I mean I think it’s awesome. I’m very proud of the group that’s started working to make this change,” Jones said. “I’m starting to see this at my school, too, because Maryland just decided to rename its stadium and remove that name. It will be interesting to see it not just happen here at home but on [college] campuses and seeing the two groups kind of parallel each other.
“I think it’s kind of easy to get it done at a university, especially one in Maryland where it’s a progressive state….but to see a smaller group here work so hard to change it and be successful, at least getting the conversation going, I find it very inspiring.”