Opposition to the effort to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School is growing and organizing, as was evident at a recent community meeting held about the issue at the high school on Monday, May 23. The community meeting, paired with a survey from the Fairfax County School Board to gauge public opinion on the possibility of changing the school’s name, is the beginning of the school board’s public engagement process about the name change.
At the meeting, which was hosted by school board vice chair and Mason District representative Sandy Evans in tandem with the Fairfax County Public Schools, community members gathered around large sheets of paper to discuss the pros and cons of a name change as a designated recorder wrote down the group’s thoughts. Some of the group discussions were heated because they featured members of the community on opposite sides of the issue, while others were more calm because the majority of the group agreed on the issue one way or the other.
There were few exchanges observed during the breakout session part of the meeting that were both contentious and calm, setting the stage for what could be a messy battle in the community and at the school, which was named after a general in the Confederate Army during America’s Civil War. The push for the name change began in 2015 when five students at the school – Anna Rowan, Lidia Amanuel, Cassie Marcotty, Abby Conde and Marley Finley – started organizing and lobbying for the change after learning about the source of the school’s name in a history class at the school.
Initially, there was a groundswell of support for the name change from teachers, fellow students, alumni from all across the country and members of the Sleepy Hollow community surrounding the school. A Change.org petition circulated around the web and received over 1,000 signatures. Then a petition on the same website opposing the name change idea received over 2,000 signatures, but the opposition seemed to be expressing itself online exclusively. Finally, two of Stuart’s most famous alumni, Academy Award-winning actress Julianne Moore and Academy Award-winning producer Bruce Cohen, circulated a Change.org petition which received nearly 35,000 signatures, though most of those came from people across the country, weighing in on a decision that will ultimately be decided locally.
Still, momentum seemed to be on the side of those who wanted a name change. In December 2015 the Fairfax County School Board voted to revise the board’s naming policy to include the ability to change a school or facility’s name in the case of a compelling need.
But the most recent developments show that there is an active opposition to the name change among residents in the area. Out of the 3,414 surveyed in the school board’s poll of community members on the name change, 56 percent of respondents said they don’t support changing the name of the school. And at the May 23 community meeting at the school, there were several representatives present from The Concerned Citizens of Fairfax, an organization that formed in early May to oppose the name change effort.
“I’m opposed to the name change right now, not necessarily in the future,” said Fairfax County resident Andre Billeaudeaux, who is a member of The Concerned Citizens of Fairfax and a parent of a student at Stuart. “The process has played out where the pro-name change folks have had over a year to push the change agenda, whereas those of us who want to make sure it’s done right have only been [acquainted] with this issue for about three weeks.”
According to Billeaudeaux, those pushing for the school board to change Stuart’s name have not provided sufficient evidence to support their claim that the school was named after a Confederate general in order to discourage students of color from coming to the school despite desegregation efforts taking place during the time of the school’s opening in 1959.
“A year ago, the [students] who started this campaign and made a video and posted it on YouTube, there were two teachers involved in the video and in the video they claimed that J.E.B. Stuart killed slaves, he was a racist and he hated black people and that the name was part of a white southern resistance issue,” Billeaudeaux said. “All right, what we would like to know is [if] that’s true because if he is known to killed or slaughtered slaves, then hell yeah, change the name. It’d be nice to see if the people who brought this video to the public’s attention have anything more substantive than an opinion.”
Another person who opposes the name change, Nicholas Menacho, a junior at Stuart who is Latino, has different reasons for opposing the name change. He said that he feels the name of the school, even if the reasons some claim it was given to the school when it opened are true, doesn’t hold the same meaning that it did in 1959.
“I feel the name of the school doesn’t have value anymore,” Menacho said. “I’ve asked several African-American students and they have all told me that it doesn’t offend [them] and when I ask other minorities, because the name was especially against minorities, it’s just kind of lost its value.
“I don’t feel offended when I come in here. Most of the minorities do not feel offended when they come in here. And it seems like most of the people who are for the name change are white people.”
He said that he feels society has overcome racism as the past and Stuart, which is one of the more racially diverse high schools in Northern Virginia, is an example of that. Linda Green, a 1962 graduate of Stuart, has a different perspective on how the racism of the past impacts today’s society and is in favor of the name change.
“There’s always been the history of oppressed peoples fighting against oppression,” Green said. “In the modern period we see Black Lives Matter and opposition to police brutality and there is one thing that does connect these eras and that’s the number of African-Americans killed by police is larger than the number hanged under slavery and those kinds of numbers would be worth drawing out.”
Two of the students who started the movement to change Stuart’s name, Abby Rowan and Lidia Amanuel, were at the May 23 meeting. Despite the opposition to the name change, both were resolute in their support for a name change. They both said they think the survey wasn’t distributed as well as they would have liked and would like to see a detailed breakdown of who voted in the survey.
“I would like to see the survey preferably done again and give people a little more time and have it done in a way that’s easier to get to everyone,” Rowan said. “Another thing, I believe it was on the alumni survey, there wasn’t an option to make a comment, so it didn’t seem exactly consistent.”
Cohen, who lives in New York City, traveled to Stuart for the May 23 meeting. He echoed statements by Amanuel, who said that just because a majority of the people are opposed to something it doesn’t make it right to go with the opposition.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said ‘The arc of history is long but bends toward justice.’ Social justice and social change is never easy in the United States. It’s always a difficult fight anytime you’re fighting for the rights of African-Americans, of women, of LGBT people and so sadly I sort of expected the opposition and, for me, that is why this is so important.
“A public high school in today’s age should not be named after a Confederate general. It should not be linked to a mascot of the days of the Confederate flag. It’s just wrong….One of the things we’re all talking about is to keep in mind that this can not be majority rule. This is not a majority vote. If minorities were waiting for the majority to give them their rights in this country, minorities would never get their rights…So we’re saying to the school board that you need to make this change because it’s the right thing to do, not because 51 percent of the people support it.”