Virginia school board considers restoring Confederate names to schools

By Thomson Reuters May 9, 2024 | 5:02 AM

By Julia Harte

(Reuters) – A U.S. school board in Shenandoah County, Virginia, will vote on Thursday on whether to restore previously removed Confederate names to two schools, potentially becoming the first community in the nation to reinstate such names.

The motion would undo the school board’s decision in 2020 stripping a high school and elementary school of the names of three military leaders of the pro-slavery Southern states in the U.S. Civil War: Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Turner Ashby.

Reverting to those names would buck a four-year trend of U.S. institutions removing symbols of the Confederacy following nationwide racial justice protests triggered by the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

Among the more than 60 U.S. schools formerly named after Confederate figures that have changed their name since 2020, none have reinstated the Confederate names so far, according to trade publication Education Week, which tracks such schools.

A local conservative coalition asked the Shenandoah County school board in April to reinstate the names to Stonewall Jackson High from Mountain View High School and Ashby-Lee Elementary from Honey Run Elementary, writing that doing so was “essential to honor our community’s heritage.”

A leader of the group, called Coalition for Better Schools, did not respond to requests for comment.

In its written request to the board, the group cited surveys that it mailed to residents of the districts from which the schools’ students are drawn, saying that out of 1,160 responses to 8,507 surveys sent, more than 90% favored switching back to the Confederate names.

Sarah Kohrs, who graduated from both schools, co-leads a citizens group that has garnered 687 signatures on an online petition to keep the current names. Her oldest child attends the high school and she expects to enroll a younger child there as well.

“Their diplomas are going to state something, and I don’t want it to state something linked to a Confederate general,” she said. “I had to deal with that my entire life. I don’t want my kids to deal with that.”

Kohrs said she fears the school board will vote to reinstate the Confederate names, because its six members have been replaced by more conservative ones since 2020.

Kyle Gutshall, the board’s vice chairman, said the 2020 name change had increased public attention on the board and helped shift its political composition to the right.

He voted to reinstate the Confederate names when a similar motion came up in 2022, primarily because he felt the 2020 decision was made without sufficient public input. The 2022 motion failed due to a tied vote.

Gutshall declined to say how he would vote on Thursday, saying there was “overwhelming” support in his district to keep the current names but that a 60% majority of the entire county still appeared to favor the old ones.

Michelle Manning, who represented Gutshall’s district in 2020, said she and other board members heard for weeks from county residents who supported changing the schools’ names before they voted to do so, even though in-person feedback opportunities were more limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Manning said some supporters of the current names might be afraid to speak out due to how charged the issue had become. “I received phone calls threatening my well-being after our vote in 2020, so I personally cannot blame people,” she said.

School board members across the United States have faced a rash of threats and hostile messages ignited by roiling controversies over subjects such as U.S. racial history, a 2022 Reuters investigation found.

(Reporting by Julia Harte, editing by Deepa Babington)