By Carey Averbook
With the renaming of J.E.B. Stuart High School to Justice High School, the Fairfax County School Board made a statement that they intend to right the wrongs of the board from nearly 60 years ago.
The name Justice is a concept term meant to honor three individuals who were highlighted by the community – Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, civil rights activist Barbara Rose Johns and war hero Louis G. Mendez, Jr.
And while the new name sits well within certain parts of the community, to others it is seen as a missed chance to enshrine one these historical figures as the sole icon of the renamed school.
“I’m honored not for what [Marshall] did in the community,” Stephen Spitz, a retired civil rights and constitutional lawyer, said. “But what he did for the community.”
Thurgood Marshall is most well-known for arguing the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education that demolished any legal basis for segregation in the country and invalidated state-enforced racial segregation in public schools. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice where he served for 24 years. Marshall and his wife, Cissy, moved to Lake Barcroft in the late 1960s.
Virginia and Fairfax County moved very slowly to integrate the schools.
In 1959, the Fairfax County School Board was pressured by lawsuits to create a desegregation and integration plan, which wasn’t fully implemented until 1971.
Julia Clark, a junior at J.E.B. Stuart, thinks that Marshall would’ve been an amazing name for her school because he is a model for young people as someone who fought for minorities’ rights, against the forces of oppression and was an exemplary figure who pursued the actualization of justice throughout his life’s work.
Spitz is happy for the school to be named Justice because he views Justice as a direct excerpt from Marshall and because he feels that it represents the One Fairfax Resolution.
While Clark would have preferred a specific person to be honored, she is glad that Justice was chosen because of its opportunity to honor all three names and individuals.
The next figure, Barbara Rose Johns, was 16 years old when she led a walk out of the all-Black Moton High School that she attended in Prince Edward County. Tired with the segregated and unequally maintained facilities compared to those of her white neighbors, Johns led a walkout and strike in 1951. That led to the lawsuit for an integrated school system that was eventually bundled under Brown v. Board.
“She played a direct role in the desegregation of our neighborhood,” Ken Longmyer, father of a Stuart alumnus and one current student, said. “She was one of the great American heroes.”
Though Johns advocates are lukewarm on the board’s decision to opt for Justice instead of specifying one individual.
Not one of the 20 Fairfax County high schools is named after a woman or a person of color — Longmyer believed that these two criteria had merit for the new name.
Shareem Annan, the Fairfax County NAACP Youth Advisor, thinks that naming the school after Johns would have allowed the county to make a decisive statement about the courage and leadership of women and girls while simultaneously disavowing one of the relics of the county’s segregationist past.
Furthermore, the role Johns played in racially integrating Northern Virginia, let alone the entire Commonwealth of Virginia and to a greater extent, the country as a whole, is why Longmyer believes the civil rights activist alone would’ve been a worthy recipient of the renaming honors at the new school.
Proponents for renaming the school after Mendez shared that sentiment, albeit for their own reasons.
Fairfax County doesn’t have a single high school named after a Hispanic individual and Stuart is almost 54-percent Hispanic, according to Virginia Department of Education data.
Tina Mendez, a local writer and daughter of the colonel, views the name Justice as a lost opportunity to honor a Hispanic individual and former community member as well as give the students somebody to emulate and represent the demographics of the student body.
“He was a true hero in many ways…because he was heroic in not letting his name get in his way, and in not allowing himself to feel like he was a victim in any way and not allowing himself to say ‘oh poor me,’” Mendez said. “He just did everything he could to do the right thing and to be a responsible person.”
Colonel Mendez grew up during the depression era and was of Mexican, Spanish and Navajo Indian ancestry.
He later received an appointment to West Point Military Academy and became one of the earliest Latinos to attend the Academy. He served in WWII and Korea and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1970, he became the national director of the Right to Read program.
Colonel Mendez and his wife were original homeowners in Barcroft Lake since 1954. They raised twelve children, eight of whom attended Stuart.
“The board had the right place, the right person and the right time and they didn’t do it,” Mendez added. “Kids at the school need someone like Dad, they need to look up to somebody, they need inspiration, they need to be proud of their school.”
The split opinions on the new name is why the board ultimately settled on a compromise at their Oct. 26 meeting.
Justice was selected to pay tribute to Marshall, Johns and Mendez as well as other heroes from the civil rights era who fought for the ideal of justice, according to Fairfax County School Board chair Jane Strauss.
She also claimed that, during the week leading up to the vote, a number of board members received “significant email traffic and support” for a name that would honor all three individuals. Strauss firmly believes that the value of “justice for all” is worth the costs of changing the school’s name and that Justice was the best compromise.
“In education, it’s really important that the symbols, the history, and the heroes that we put forward…teach children the values that we want them to believe and that we hope will guide their lives,” Strauss said.
Critiques still linger from the board’s handling of the process. Bruce Cohen, a Stuart alumnus and Academy Award-winning producer, was thrilled with the new name but thinks Marshall, Johns or Mendez weren’t chosen because of a lack of board members willing to name the school after a person of color.
A pro-Stuart advocate and 2011 Stuart alumnus, Christian Barbosa, is a dual American-Brazilian citizen who identifies with the struggle that he imagines Stuart faced when his two loves – Virginia and the United States – separated.
He feels that Stuart’s life offers lessons of loyalty, navigation of multiple identities and working amongst disagreement.
Clark also thinks that there should have been more student involvement and education in the process.
According to Clark, a lot of students are uncertain about moving forward while awaiting the implementation plan.
But Clark also adds that, “A lot of students are excited about naming hallways after Civil Rights leaders and the education aspect of naming the school Justice. Now we get to teach about all three names.”