Efforts to rename J.E.B. Stuart High School is dividing students, parents, and school board members throughout Fairfax County.
J.E.B. is short for James Ewell Brown Stuart. He was a Confederate general known as a bold cavalry commander who led multiple battles, many in Virginia. American-made Stuart Tanks are named after him because of his military prowess and deceptive techniques on Munson Hill, which is a mile from the high school in Falls Church that’s named after him.
He was only 31 years old when he was killed in battle in 1864 during the Civil War.
Some students say keeping his name is about preserving history.
“He did many great things with his life. He loved Virginia so much that he was willing, like Robert E. Lee, they both decided instead of taking high positions in the Union Army, they decided to join the South because they didn’t want to raise a hand against Virginia,” said Stuart 10th grader Kurt Finkenstaedt.
Others say public schools should not be named after confederate leaders.
“I definitely think the name should be changed. I feel as though the name has become a very controversial part of our community, and so changing it would help bring us together, since we are a minority-majority school,” said student Ariana Habibi.
Whether Stuart was a slave owner, depends on who you ask. Historians say Stuart inherited two slaves, then released them.
“J.E.B. Stuart was a career military officer. He fought against slavery in Kansas. He is an interesting man because he served for both [the Union and Confederacy]. So, why are we obliterating our history instead of expanding the whole educational opportunity here,” said Denise Patton, who lives in the Stuart community.
She is on the ad hoc committee appointed to consider the name change, but the committee is completely divided. The battle lines are drawn between two sides: those who want to keep the J.E.B. Stuart name and those who want to change it.
Fairfax County Public Schools has more than 188,000 students. Forty-percent are white and 60 percent are non-white. Of the non-white, 24 percent are Hispanic, 19 percent are Asian American, 10 percent are African American and five percent are multiracial.
Local NAACP leaders say now is the time to name a Fairfax County high school after a person of color.
“We do not think it’s appropriate to commemorate the values of the Confederacy today. The values of the Confederacy were white supremacy, slavery, and they fought to preserve that,” said George Alber, a leader with the Fairfax NAACP.
Alber doesn’t live in the Stuart district, but he’s heavily involved with the FCPS School Board in the name change process, as can be seen in many emails obtained through a WUSA9 Freedom of Information Act request.
In one email, Alber wonders why another school member outside the district is involved. In another email, Alber tells a school board member that the FCPS informational “What’s In a Name” video about J.E.B. Stuart could come back to “haunt you.” The video was taken down the next day. It’s back online currently.
The group that’s fighting the name change accuses school board members of secrecy and unethical behavior. The group says board members are colluding with the NAACP, which is against the board’s written code of policy.
The policy states that board members are “obligated to act in the best interest of the school system as a whole… [which] supersedes any conflicting loyalty a member may have to other advocacy or interest groups.”
“It’s a special interest. And at some point, it’s also telling us that some of our board members have a personal interest in seeing this happen,” said Patton.
The group also takes issue with board member Pat Hynes saying to take the discussion “off line” in an email.
“Taking it off line implies secrecy. We already know almost an entire year had gone by before the community was even asked if we wanted this,” said Patton.
Hynes says she was not being secretive.
“We remind each other from time to time that we should not be having conversations by email in public. I don’t remember the exact context for that email,” said Hynes. She says the board is listening to arguments on both sides and realizes the decision will not be easy.
Michael Klein is a Stuart Booster and was on a group appointed to estimate the cost of a name change. The group found it would run between $750,000 to $930,000. The most expensive cost would be replacing the fairly new turf field.
Klein said if a new name is chosen, he did not like the suggestion to implement it gradually.
“You already have a community that’s struggling. If you have JV players with one name and varsity players with another, how do you decide? The boy’s teams get special treatment and the girl’s teams don’t? If they’re going to do it, they need to do,” he said, although he and others are adamant about not burdening the community with any additional costs.
The school is one of the most diverse in the area and has a high number of students on free and reduced lunch.
The ad hoc committee appears too divided to come up with one recommendation. There may be two suggestions, and it will ultimately be a school board decision, which could come in the next few months.