At a lengthy online work session Tuesday night that began with 120 public comments, the Falls Church School Board agreed by consensus to move forward with a process to consider whether or not to change the names of two of its schools, George Mason High and Thomas Jefferson Elementary, on grounds that the Founding Fathers the schools are currently named for both owned slaves.
The School Board’s next step will involve retaining a consultant to begin gathering information.
It may not be until Thanksgiving that a decision will be reached on whether or not to change one or both of the names, and then, if the result of that process is a “yes” on changing the names of one or both, a second process to determined what the new name or names of the schools will be.
In the case of George Mason High, a new $120 million campus is well into construction, and is expected to be available for occupancy next January.
The school board’s decision Tuesday night comes in the context of name change efforts in surrounding school jurisdictions, with changes having already removed the names of Confederate generals in Fairfax and Arlington schools.
Falls Church’s move, however, is the only one so far that could impact the names of Founding Fathers rather than Confederates who declared war on the United States.
It took a lengthy time and a contentious debate for a student-driven initiative to win approval by the Fairfax County School Board to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School in the Seven Corners area adjacent Falls Church to Justice High in 2017. In Arlington, the Washington and Lee High School’s name was changed to Washington Liberty. Now, the process is underway to change the name of Fairfax’s Robert E. Lee High School and Mosby Woods Elementary.
It’s been pointed out in the course of those debates that the push to name schools for Confederates came in the 1950s as a reaction against the 1954 Board Vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to integrate U.S. public schools.
Then, there was a false but prevailing wisdom in the south, including Virginia, that the Confederacy was formed to defend “states’ rights” against an oppressive federal government, and that by that argument, it constituted a moral equivalency of the South with the North.
In more recent years, however, that deeply flawed view has been replaced with the true history of events leading up to and following the Civil War.
The Confederacy has been more properly understood as an insurgency in defense of slavery against the democratic United States of America, and that elevating Confederate leaders is equivalent to honoring pro-slavery traitors against the U.S. whose insurgency was achieved at the expense of well over 300,000 Union lives who had to fight against slavery.
That awareness has led to the removal of many of the monuments to Confederate traitors that were erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy and their allies in the 1890s on as part of the reactionary “Jim Crow” era in the south that included over 3,000 lynchings of Blacks. Yesterday, July 1, a new law that went into effect in Virginia permitting localities to take down Confederate monuments led to the swift removal of a statue of Stonewall Jackson in Richmond.
This realization was extensively expressed in many of the public comments submitted and read aloud each for up to three minutes in succession by four members of the School staff at Tuesday’s School Board meeting.
“Monsters of the Confederacy” was how one citizen contrasted those figures to the Founding Fathers of the U.S., who were around almost a century earlier and while in the cases of Jefferson, Mason and George Washington, owned slaves but put their lives on the line for the principle of what Jefferson penned in the 1776 Declaration of Independence as the notion that “All men are created equal,” a truly radical concept at the time.
For all their given flaws in the context of the times, these Founding Fathers laid the groundwork for the abolition of slavery altogether, and Mason was quoted in the comments of some about how Mason was an outspoken critic of slavery who argued in the 1780s that southern states should perhaps not be brought into the Union for that reason.
Others argued that the Founding Fathers were just as bad as the Confederates because of their unrepentant ownership of other human beings, and these times “call for a reawakening of society.”
Petition signatures of over 700 persons calling for the school name changes here were invoked. In all, the News-Press counted 51 persons submitting statements opposed to the name changes and 13 in favor.
At the beginning of the meeting School Board member Phil Reitinger argued that not all the public comments be read, but his view did not prevail given the special circumstances of a virtual online meeting. “This is part of our job and these are unprecedented times. We should stick to it,” said board member Susan Dimock.
After over two hours of reading the comments, Reitinger said he “agreed with the notion of beginning a process” of examining the issue. “There are mixed legacies. We can’t forget and forgive, but perhaps only understand,” he said.
But he said “we should not reinvent the wheel,” noting that leaders at George Mason University undertook an extensive study of the merits and demerits of the man after whom their school was named, and decided not to change it.
“It is important to get this right,” he said. “It will be difficult to build a consensus in the community. Don’t rush it.”
Board member Sue Litton said, “Obviously, there is a lot of interest in the community. We should consider hiring a consultant because this issue could suck up a lot of energy and it is different than the issue of equity.”
Board member Lawrence Webb said that he has a limited understanding of who Mason was, but that “we wouldn’t be a country without” the contributions of Mason and Jefferson, although he said, “They didn’t have people of color in mind. African-American history is not taught at all even now.”
In terms of the school system’s goals of “equity, diversity and inclusion,” he said, “There is still a lot of work to do.” Every student, he added, “needs to feel there is a level playing field, and I find that there are many who don’t feel that way now.”
Board member Laura Downs said that “students are less concerned about a name change than about these equity issues in their lives.”