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Public Weighs In On Confederate Names of Virginia Schools

Robert E. Lee Elementary
Robert E. Lee Elementary is one of three schools being considered for name changes in Petersburg. (Photo: Megan Pauly/WCVE)

From Prince William County to Hanover, and from Petersburg to Roanoke, a number of Virginia school districts are considering changing the names of schools named after Confederate generals.

And while these conversations aren’t new - they’ve gained more momentum following last summer’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. For Learning Curve, 88.9 WCVE’s Megan Pauly reports.

In October, the Fairfax County school board voted to change J.E.B. Stuart High in Falls Church, to Justice High. Hampton’s school board voted unanimously in January to change the name of Jefferson Davis Middle School to Cesar Tarrant Middle School - after a Revolutionary War hero freed from slavery in 1789.


In Petersburg, community members are also weighing name changes for three schools. The district has been holding public hearings about Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and A.P. Hill elementaries.

(Comments from Public Hearing):
We are America united as one, and we cannot honor people who tried to disrupt, destroy and downgrade America...

Changing the names of the schools won’t change the history of what happened. But it will let us move forward and let us know that the chains are not still on us and that we really are – and we truly are – free people...

Now – I don’t know these Generals personally, but I believe that at the time they were patriotically defending Virginia – see Virginia was almost like its own country...

Wouldn’t it be great to have successful accredited schools even though they’re named after Confederate people. What better way to slap them in the face?

Steven Pierce: I call it a healthy discussion…

Steven Pierce is Vice Chair of Petersburg’s school board.

Pierce: These are the kinds of discussions that you prefer. These are the kinds of discussions where the community at large has a right to come out, share the facts so that they can give you their opinions.

Most voiced support for name changes - with some expressing concerns about cost. A few spoke in support of keeping Confederate school names as well as their mascots.

In addition to the in-person meetings - the district has also been collecting feedback in an online survey. As schools consider new names, they’re also making an inventory of what needs to be updated inside the buildings.

Leigh Ann McKelway: So you can see it would just be the plastic part of the sign that would change...

J.E.B. Stuart

That’s District spokeswoman Leigh Ann McKelway. She points to J.E.B. Stuart elementary’s current mascot the General. The image of an African American soldier with military fatigues is depicted on the entrance, doormats and signs throughout the school. She says they’d like to get students involved in choosing new mascots.

McKelway: We just opened Vernon Johns Middle School this year, and when we did that we asked the students: what do you want your mascot to be? And it was really fun for them, and they got really tied into the school…and they chose Wildcats. So, the Vernon Johns Middle School Wildcats. Any of our elementary schools that were to change their mascots: we’d do the same thing with the kids.

The district estimates it’ll cost $18,000 to change the names at all three schools, paying for things like new signs, floor mats and even stage curtains. But McKelway says the price tag would be higher for middle or high schools.

McKelway: These are elementary schools we’re talking about. So we don’t have athletic uniforms or anything like that.

In nearby Hanover County, Lee Davis High is still branded as the "home of the Confederates." That district is also considering changing this name as well as Stonewall Jackson Middle School. Lee Davis opened in 1959, and Stonewall Jackson opened in 1969.

Amanda Lineberry grew up around Confederate symbols in her home and schools. The Lee Davis grad remembers running track and field in orange and blue uniforms bearing the school’s Confederate mascot.

Amanda Lineberry: There wasn’t anything too provocative about them, except some of our school paraphernalia has the actual profiles of Lee and Davis in this little circle on the back of a lot of the uniforms and actually was engraved on the side of our class ring.

While she was there, she says the principal tried to change the culture by starting to use a bulldog as a mascot.

Lineberry: And instead of Confederates, we called ourselves the C-Feds a lot…that was just sort of short lingo, but it also felt a bit less charged.

Lineberry didn’t think much about the names when she was a teen. But as she learned more about U.S. history, she took a more active role. She recently presented a petition to the district in support of changing the name started by classmate Ryan Leach. While the process in Hanover is just now beginning, in Petersburg it’s wrapping up.

Petersburg School Board Chair Kenneth Pritchett says this process is a long time coming. He says some alumni approached the district several years ago about changing the names, but at that time there wasn’t enough community support to get the ball rolling.

Kenneth Pritchett: We received more input after what occurred in Charlottesville. And we started getting more emails and more phone calls from citizens here in the city of Petersburg, and also from former students asking us to consider. So based on our board policy, we decided that we needed to be transparent and we needed to listen to our constituents. And so we decided to move forward with it.

There’ve been strong feelings expressed both for changing the names as well as keeping them. But ultimately – regardless of community input – the final decision about whether or not to change the names rests with the school board.

And some school board members like Pritchett already have strong feelings.

Pritchett: Schools – as I have always stated – should represent the community that our constituents and our students live in. And right now, the names of our schools do not represent the students that are attending those schools.

The district also sought input about new names for the schools, should they decide to go ahead with the changes.

However, some community members like Mary Howard disagree with the district’s policy that schools can’t be named for people still alive, or those who’ve passed away in the last decade.

Mary Howard: And I’m saying…how’d ya’ll come up with that?

She’d rather see the district name the schools after living role models. She suggested Chief Judge Roger Gregory – the first black judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Gregory also works with youth in a non-profit she runs.

Howard: And he comes down, I call him…he comes down and talks to the kids. We go to his chambers and they sit in the chairs and he teaches him, he’s a teacher. He’s approachable, he loves youth, he’s also a playwriter.

In Hanover, the district’s policy about school names was changed several years ago. It now prohibits schools from being named after people. However – according to the district – that policy isn’t applied retroactively.

That leaves the predominantly white Hanover district with its current predicament – and with those like former Lee High student Amanda Lineberry patiently waiting.

Lineberry: I think the biggest concern that I have is that this shouldn’t necessarily be a majoritarian dilemma where it’s whoever has the most supporters wins. I hope that they take even the minority view, even the current students who fill that out and say I don’t feel comfortable here, I don’t feel like I can join a sports team because of this mascot or I’m not going to this school because I don’t want this mascot…I think they should take those comments very seriously. Because with the educational mission that Hanover County has – and with the diversity of students the district is trying to support – that matters, regardless of what the majority says.

Hanover county is gathering input through a web survey and community meetings. Thousands have also signed online petitions, the majority in support of keeping the Confederate names. Petersburg’s School Board is poised to make its decision Wednesday night. For Learning Curve, I’m Megan Pauly, WCVE News.