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A School Board Reinstated Confederate School Names. Could It Happen Elsewhere?

Beth Veney Ogle recalls when, as a student at Stonewall Jackson High School in Shenandoah County, Va., the Confederate flag was displayed in the gymnasium. She remembers the flag being run up and down the sidelines of games as a student in the late ‘90s.

“There was always an undercurrent of having to know which people I felt safe around,” she said in a phone interview.

Veney Ogle, who is biracial, said she recently found herself in the same position as her grandparents, who in 1963 asked the school district to provide the “dignity and respect of a full educational opportunity” to their children.

“Sixty-one years. And here I stand, formally, making the same request for their great-grandchildren,” she told the school board in early May, asking them not to reinstate the names Stonewall Jackson and Ashby Lee—names honoring leaders and soldiers in the Confederate army—to the district’s high school and elementary school.

The board, after hours of public comment and an hour of board discussion, voted 5-1 to reinstate the names early on May 10, four years after previous members had renamed the schools to Mountain View High and Honey Run Elementary.

For hours, community members, parents, and students in the district spoke to the school board about the decision. Those in favor of keeping the new names outnumbered those who wanted to return to the old names in public comments, but board members said surveys and emails weighed heavily toward renewing the names. The board criticized former members in 2020 for quickly voting to change the names.

The Virginia school board’s decision is the first reversal of its kind, and some historians and researchers worry it will encourage other districts to do the same.

Gregg Suzanne Ferguson, adjunct for the psychology department of West Virginia State University, who has researched the effect of school names on Black educators and students, said she is getting weary of this battle.

“I thought the work had been done,” she said. “It just never would have occurred to me that there would be this backlash against the protections for every citizen of the United States to have the same type of experience living here.”

Confederate school names have faced scrutiny since 2020

Approximately 340 schools in 21 states are named for Confederate figures, according to data collected by Education Week, which tracks Confederate-named schools.

Proponents of such names have argued that it is a part of Southern heritage; researchers say there’s a romanticization of the era and the “Lost Cause.” Opponents, however, say the names are symbols of slavery and racism, creating a harmful environment for Black students and educators.

Campaigns to change the names of schools named for Confederate figures have surged after high-profile racist incidents, such as the June 2015 shooting of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., the death and injuries at a 2017 white supremacist rally and counter-protest in Charlottesville, Va., and the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis in May 2020.

At least 61 schools have changed their names since June 29, 2020, after Floyd’s murder spurred a racial reckoning, according to EdWeek data.

Three states—Oregon, New York, and Nevada—enacted legislation in some way prohibiting school districts from using names, logos, and mascots associated with the Confederacy, according to data collected by Lauren Gendill, a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. A similar measure in Georgia failed in 2022.

Chloe Lancaster, an associate professor in education at the University of South Florida, and her colleagues researched the impact of another Southern school board’s decision to retain its Confederate-based Rebel mascot on school-based helping professionals (such as school counselors and social workers).

“They really spoke about how when you have a mascot imbued with all the history in the South, it just really normalized a culture of racism in the school and community,” Lancaster said.

It was a point of shame and embarrassment for the Black educators, she said.

Ferguson said her own research, showed that many students didn’t have an awareness of the harm in the names, and educators were reluctant to “make students aware of the symbolic violence inherent in those names.” But in eliminating the names of Confederate figures in schools nationally, it brought the racism embedded in the names into the open for students, she said.

“Reverting back to those same names of those racists is definitely going to indicate to the students that yeah, we’re doubling down,” she said.

Confederate school names picked up steam in the 1940s and 50s, researchers say

Jason Pierce, an associate professor and chair of the history department at Angelo State University in Texas, said he and his colleague got involved with a grassroots effort to remove the name of Robert E. Lee from a local middle school, using their background as historians to propel the effort.

Pierce said that there were two periods in history where there was a wave of Confederate namings and monument placements: around World War I, and after World War II during the Civil Rights Movement. After World War I, Black servicemen were returning from fighting alongside the French in a non-segregated environment, he said, and saw another way to live. Historians, he said, argue that the backlash was an effort to curb progress.

After World War II, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining traction and momentum. In opposition, schools were named after Confederate leaders, statues were placed in their honor, and state flags were redone to incorporate the Confederate flag, he said.

Now, the attachment to the names that sprung up in the 1940s and 1950s boils down to a few reasons, Pierce said.

One, he said, is that alumni feel it’s not their school anymore because of the name changes. Alumni are attached to the name because they remember the school that way.

Also, there’s often a romanticization around the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause,” Pierce said—seeing it instead as a “gallant but doomed romantic effort to stand up for what you believe in.”

Some of the attachment to the Confederate-named schools might be a way to espouse racist ideas without coming off like a racist—by celebrating the Confederacy and marginalizing the role of slavery, he said.

Pierce is now wondering if the people who had wanted to retain the name of Robert E. Lee at the local middle school will renew the fight—and what would happen if they do.

“With the political climate now, I’m not sure if we would have been successful in a campaign to change the name now,” he said. “There’s been a real backlash, I guess, against not just changing names, but everything that’s labeled as DEI,” or diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In an email, school board chairman Dennis Barlow said that “the reliably liberal outlets have been critical, but most letters and emails I get applaud the decision to let history win out over ‘woke’ politics.”

At the board meeting, Barlow, a retired U.S. colonel, said he understood that the return of the name would be unsettling, but the “Black soldiers that I soldiered with, I don’t think they would think going to Stonewall Jackson High School was the biggest threat that ever happened to them.”

“The hyperbole here is rather stunning,” he said.

But for Veney Ogle’s daughter, an 8th grader who plays three sports at Mountain View, going to a school named for Jackson doesn’t feel right.

“She’s a phenomenal student and student-athlete,” her mother said. “That means something to her, representing her school and honoring her school. She doesn’t feel like she can do that at Stonewall without dishonoring her heritage, who she is, and her values. It’s something we’re having many conversations about and we don’t really feel like there’s a good option.”

Veney Ogle, whose father went to a segregated elementary school and whose aunt was in the first class to integrate in Shenandoah County, said it’s difficult to describe her relationship to her time at the high school. There were good friends and positive people around her, coupled with a present danger.

“You can love something and still be disappointed in it,” she said. “You can love the people and the building and still be disappointed in the history of the building, the community, and the way the community has devalued, or refused to acknowledge, the Black lives and Black experiences.”

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