There has been a robust and passionate civic dialogue in the City of Falls Church in recent months over the question before the School Board about whether the names of two of the City’s five schools should be changed.
In this extraordinary year of “Black Lives Matter” reckoning following the George Floyd and other murders, Falls Church has been no stranger to the ferment, as the largest spontaneous march ever in the City’s history, led by high school students this summer, and frequent demonstrations of hundreds lining East Broad led by the Tinner Hill and other social justice groups have taken place.
Among other things, this led to the formation of an active Police Use of Force Review Committee and a decision by the School Board in late June to consider a petition that it act to change the names of George Mason High and Thomas Jefferson Elementary because both of those Founding Fathers owned slaves at the time of the American revolution (even as they were both instrumental in the founding of our republic on the then-highly revolutionary grounds of “the inalienable rights of all persons”).
Sadly, amid all the debate on this, the hundreds of letters submitted to the School Board and public testimonies, strong feelings have led to a growing environment of contention and disappointment. There are those for whom the honoring the enslavement of others by those Founders strikes deeply and hurtfully. Others are offended by the rush to change the names out of loyalty to all the students who proudly attended them over half a century.
No doubt serious work remains in the striving for racial equality in this community. But Falls Church is not facing situations like in neighboring jurisdictions that involve removing the names of Confederate generals and politicians from schools, streets and other places. The Confederates were explicitly pro-slavery, and willingly shed the blood of American citizens to perpetuate it. Over 600,000 died in four years of open civil war. It is not only necessary it is imperative that the names of those racist traitors be purged from all public places.
But in the Falls Church situation, the alternatives represent more a continuum of justice than a clash between freedom and slavery. At one end of this continuum, imperfect persons, indeed, nonetheless engaged in the heroic work of wrestling America free from the ageless scourge of tyranny and despotic injustice that encouraged and expanded the slave trade to begin with.
It’s taken this long, and the work is not done yet, but since the 1790s, slavery has been eradicated and the rights of women and minorities have been expanded, all under the core principles our founders began with. So, if you want to point to the beginning of this continuum or a better, more current moment, we are all still honoring the imperfect yet virtuous long arm of justice that has and continues to compel us forward to a more perfect union.