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Mason, Jefferson Name Change Debates Address Thorny Elements of Their Lives

NEW SCHOOL, NEW OPPORTUNITY. That was the thinking behind Falls Church residents Melissa Teates and Dave Rifkin’s advocacy for changing the name of George Mason High School upon completion of the new building in December. (Photo: News-Press)

On Tuesday, a consultant hired by Falls Church City Public Schools will begin surveying the community on whether or not the names of George Mason High and Thomas Jefferson Elementary should be changed on the grounds that the American figures both held slaves. While respondents will likely be checking a box “Yes” or “No,” their answers will reveal how they truly feel about the men responsible for founding the United States.

“If you want to say the Confederates are bad, or much worse, I think you’re wrong,” Melissa Teates, one of the earliest advocates for Mason’s name change, said of him and Jefferson. “The Confederates were fighting to keep the way of life that these men had. I think they’re totally connected.”

A member of the City of Falls Church’s planning commission, Teates began her advocacy in May 2019 at a school board meeting. The angle she took back then was to simply have the board consider looking at the name since there was a new school being constructed, making a change even easier.

It’s a similar approach to what longtime City resident Dave Rifkin took as well. He said that he would do everything in his power to make sure the high school had a new name after voters approved the bond referendum that cleared the way for a new building in fall 2017. Rifkin has periodically reached out to the school board over the past three years to voice his opposition to the name, hoping it could honor a local icon instead.

After multiple visits to the school board, Teates had accepted that the name change effort had little momentum behind it, despite the occasional conversation with community members who agreed with her point of view. But the issue gained new life once George Floyd was killed by a police officer in May, and the school’s name became a symbol of the country celebrating its ugly past.

These arguments were furthered by Mason’s lesser-known place in history. Rifkin, who didn’t grow up in Virginia, thinks of Mason as a parochial figure that didn’t even sign the U.S. Constitution. Teates asked her own kids what they knew of Mason, to which they replied very little, outside of him authoring the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

“He’s not someone of stature, in my mind, that other people are. On top of that, he was a slave holder. That’s how he made his living. And he didn’t see any reason to stop at his death,” Rifkin said, noting that Mason passed his slaves down to his children when he died so they could enjoy his same quality of life.

Teates said that, “If anything, that’s his premier thing he did give to society which is the Virginia Declaration of Rights, except that those rights only applied to male, white landowners, so it wasn’t that great.”

According to the National Archives, the Virginia Declaration of Rights was drawn upon by Jefferson for the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, particularly the famous phrase of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It was also used to form the basis for the Bill of Rights years later at the Constitutional Convention.

SURVEYS GO OUT TUESDAY and will ask community members their opinions on whether Falls Church schools should keep George Mason and Thomas Jefferson’s names. (Photo: News-Press)

Being an unwitting drafter of two of America’s founding documents in Mason — and of course, a founding father in Jefferson — is what gives local history buff and Mason alumnus (‘67) Win Singleton pause about removing both of the Virginia figures’ names from their respective schools.

“They lived in their era, and they shouldn’t be judged by today’s era,” Singleton said. He continued by saying that even with the remarkable achievements both Mason and Jefferson had, they didn’t always live up to their ideals. Then again, he added, “I’m not sure some of our people living today are living up to their ideals all the time either.”

An incomplete picture of American history provided by the education system may be why there’s such an urge to correct the perception of the two men.

Singleton said he read about a former Alabama high school student who originally learned of slave owning as this very tame thing. So tame, in fact, that he said the student’s reading material had a passage about how the slave owner took his slaves out for a picnic. The characterization, per Singleton, omitted the lack of freedom and brutality that came with being a slave, and he could see how that could taint someone’s view of the U.S. if discovering the truth of the matter later on.

The Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Henderson talked about how southern intellectuals crafted a narrative about the “happy slave” in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And in his own work as a teacher, Henderson was advised that there were certain things he shouldn’t do because it would make white students feel bad about themselves.

Getting at the truth of the country’s past — without beating people over the head with it — is what Henderson believes the ultimate goal should be. Although that truth doesn’t have him equating the slave holding ways of the nation’s founders with Confederate secessionists.

“I see a distinct difference between the two,” Henderson said. “[The founders] were fighting for freedom from British control of this land over here under which a system that fostered slavery, but they weren’t necessarily fighting to preserve slavery.”

(Editor’s note: After speaking with the News-Press, Henderson asked to see his attributions in the story. Upon seeing the above quote, Henderson changed his stance and said the American founders were fighting to preserve slavery.)

THE COLLOQUIAL “TJ” for Jefferson Elementary is why residents like Rifkin never thought much about its association with Thomas Jefferson. Learning about Jefferson’s lifestyle as a slave owner is why Mason graduate Hayley Loftur-Thun (’16) believes the school shouldn’t be named after the founding father. (Photo: News-Press)

Two separate conversations former Falls Church Vice Mayor Hal Lippman has had with young City residents Hayley Loftur-Thun, a Mason gradute from 2016, and Toni Lewis could represent what’s already taking place around town.

With Loftur-Thun, who started a petition to change the name of Jefferson Elementary that has over 900 signatures to date, Lippman took issue with the exagerrated language she used in a letter to the editor published by the News-Press in June. In it, Loftur-Thun said that Jefferson “beat young African Americans as young as age 9, and took pride in these actions.” Lippman pushed back in a letter the following week, and the two have shared a conversation over the phone since then.

Loftur-Thun still doesn’t believe children should go to a school named for someone who was aware of the beatings even his youngest slaves endured, but she didn’t want to go as far as to say Jefferson doesn’t deserve to be honored.

Lewis, meanwhile, finds it unacceptable that people are so willing to excuse the sins of slaveholders as long as they contributed something notable. She said that it’s a slap in the face to people of color to honor slave owners with school names. To her, no American icon’s place in public should be shielded from their past wrongs, though she also admits her opinion is likely in the minority.

“I don’t believe any historical figure — no symbol, no school name, no monument — is sacred. We have to decide as a community here, and as a nation, what symbols serve and inspire us,” Lewis said.

It’s that line of thinking that makes Lippman anxious.

“I’m just concerned where you draw the line,” Lippman said. “Words really do matter. That’s the underlying theme for all of this: that what people say with careless passion while trying to make their point really is a big deal these days.”

Opinions run the gamut of how the survey should be treated.

Henderson thinks getting the community’s input is needed before moving forward with the process. Lewis doesn’t believe a survey favoring keeping the names should prevent the school board from implementing new ones. Singleton has accepted that Mason’s name will likely be removed.

As for Teates, she said she will honor the results.

The goal of her advocacy was to connect the name change discussion with the construction of the new school. If people decide they don’t want that, she just hopes that the history of Mason and Jefferson taught in class lets people know the good and bad they took part in.