Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

By chance, the open seat I grabbed at the Jan. 10 Arlington School Board meeting was amidst a reunion of angry alumni of the now-renamed Washington-Lee High School.

The plan to remove the problematic Robert E. Lee moniker was known going in. But there was an element of surprise that night when the board rejected, by 2-3, its volunteer advisory panel’s top choice of Washington-Loving (for the interracial Virginia couple who won the right to marry in a 1967 Supreme Court case).

Then came two board member switches to make it unanimous (prompting a scoff from alumni association vice president Dean Fleming, ’75, who considered the process rigged). The decision makers approved member Barbara Kanninen’s motion for the alternative of Washington-Liberty. The board “did a good job hocus-pocusing the community,” Fleming told its members.

Observers expected fireworks — two Arlington police officers were stationed at the back of the hall.

Some alums who wanted to “keep W-L shining” stormed out, others still wanted to speak after the comment period ended. And many emitted loud groans when board member Nancy Van Doren described the much-criticized community engagement process as the vaunted “Arlington Way.”

W-L alums have had a tough 18 months. Their beloved 94-year-old alma mater became a touchstone for the nation’s debates on slavery, racism and patriotism. Last month, they lost their court case brought by three students accusing the board of reneging on its timetable for community consultation. School officials rebutted their claims that the board’s June vote to disqualify Lee was rushed, or that the board clerk “doctored” documents.

Of the 18 scheduled speakers, most wanted to keep Lee’s name, including one from that advisory committee (from which several resigned when it became clear that keeping Lee was off the agenda). Few credited the board for at least preserving their school’s initials (and, most likely, the nickname Generals). Some portrayed Lee as a reconciler and one of “the greatest Americans.” Others fought tears. “Take a deep breath and think of the example you’re setting” one told the board.

Many ignored the chair request that audience members respond to comments only with a silent gesture, not time-wasting applause. More than once, Chairman Reid Goldstein admonished them. “We listened quietly and respectfully to the public speakers,” he said, asking those who talked during board deliberations to “show the same courtesy or leave the chamber.”

Reid asked alums not to send in their diplomas for updating. Member Monique O’Grady added, “Rest assured, Robert E. Lee will not be forgotten in our schools.”

I received a long critique of the “sham” decision from basketball star Ed Hummer, ’63, who had done deep research on Lee’s legacy. (Hummer also complained to the board that staff had “plagiarized” his analysis of Arlington schools named for slaveowners and plantations.)

“The decision is regrettable on the merits and, even worse, the process the board took was appalling in its lack of transparency and lack of any semblance of intellectual honesty,” he wrote me. “The school board was determined from the outset to change the name … It took these steps to avoid any community engagement…because it knew that the community was not in support.”

George Dodge, ’71, said, “If the name has to change, Washington-Liberty is better than Washington-Loving.” Connie Long, ’58, told me, Washington-Liberty, reluctantly, is “something I can live with.”

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There’s a new owner of the historic, early 19th-century Birchwood Cabin at N. Wakefield and 26th Sts. And his early moves to modernize have drawn concern from neighbors and history activists who’ve asked the county to keep an eye on it.

Realtor and neighbor Grant Doe wrote the owner complaining about the recent removal of a corner brick monument, offering a capsule history of the home that contains parts dating to the 1830s and was owned by Dr. Presley Rixey.

“I recently purchased the property, and it was in serious disrepair inside and out,” replied Robert Stavros, saying the monument was not original and looked out of place. “Now the home has been restored and is better than ever.”