Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Barbara Rose Johns Should Be Stuart High’s New Name

By Ken Longmyer

With the vote by the Fairfax County School Board to rename Stuart High School scheduled for tonight, Oct. 26, I would like to summarize why I believe that “Barbara Rose Johns High School,” is the most appropriate and strongest name for our high school and to ask the School Board to support that name on Thursday.

“Barbara Rose Johns,” or “Barbara Johns Powell,” is a unifying name that is acceptable to all who support a new name. All of the young people who appeared before you – black, white, mixed race, Asian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim – asked you to rename their school in honor of Ms. Johns. I heard no objections to the name of this young Virginia hero.

When I first proposed Barbara’s name, I assumed that given increasing attention to disadvantages that women and girls face in schools, employment and politics, Democratic women on the School Board would be keenly interested in naming a high school after a young woman who did so much for Virginia and America. However, the argument for supporting a Barbara Rose Johns High School goes beyond recognizing the heroic achievements and contributions of this young woman, impressive as they were; the main goal is to encourage and validate the concerns and ambitions of young women including the ten who appeared before you advocating for a school named after someone like themselves. Indeed, support in our community for naming one of our high schools in honor of a woman is growing. In the community vote, twelve women’s names received a combined total of 1,005 points, more than for Stuart, Justice Marshall, Mendez or Peace Valley.

I believe that “Justice,” “Marshall,” “Mendez” or “Peace Valley” are not the most suitable names for several reasons. Justice Marshall deserves the many honors he has received. But for this purpose his name would confusing and add little to his renown. There are already 69 schools named after Mr. Marshall, and “Justice” is clearly a substitute for “Marshall,” as “Stuart” is a stand in for “J.E.B. Stuart.” “Justice” would be a confusing name subject to various characterizations. To some it would refer to a moral and legal concept, to others it would refer to Justice Marshall, and to others, Justice Antonin Scalia.

A high school named after Johns, on the other hand, would be in accord with the spirit and letter of School Board Regulation 8170.7 and could not be confused with any other school in the area.

“Mendez” does not enjoy broad support. It was a last minute alternative to the two black names, Johns and Marshall. This proposal, which did not come from the Hispanic community, received only 328 points, compared to 737 for Johns and 763 for “Justice/Marshall.” Significantly, I think, support for Justice and Marshall came primarily from the residents of Lake Barcroft. “Peace Valley,” trailing with 494 points, would be the first Fairfax County high school named after its street location.
Stuart, which began as a school for whites only, now has a very diverse student body.

However, black Virginians have a special connection with the name of this school. The Civil War was fought over slavery. “Massive resistance” and the naming of “Stuart” were designed to keep us out of schools like Stuart. These tactics were aimed at us and no one else. Therefore, we think it fitting and just that our views on a new name should be given special consideration.

We think it fair to use this opportunity to honor civil rights leaders, particularly the frequently invisible black women who risked their lives to open our schools not only to African Americans but to everyone. That is why, with the exception of a very few people, the black communities support a “Barbara Rose Johns High School.”

By the way, the more things change, the more they remain the same. A year ago, in a letter to the editor in the Falls Church News Press, I noted, “There are 26 (sic) high schools in Fairfax County. Not one is named after a female, a person of color, or a young person.”

Since then, I discovered that there is only one high school in Virginia – Maggie Walker, a regional magnet high school in Richmond City – named after a woman. Of course Virginia has many high schools named after men, including at least one honoring a colored man, Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk.

If “Stuart” becomes “Justice” this will still be true. “Justice” has neither gender, race nor age.

Already, I have heard several people ask, “Why does Fairfax County find it so difficult to name a high school after an African American? Why an abstract concept instead of a real Virginia hero, who was female and black?”

How long is this injustice to continue?


Ken Longmyer is a parent to a student at J.E.B. Stuart High School.