Education board in Virginia votes to restore schools’ Confederate names

By Thomson Reuters May 10, 2024 | 6:50 AM

By Evelyn Hockstein and Julia Harte

WOODSTOCK, Virginia (Reuters) – The education board for Shenandoah County, Virginia, voted early on Friday to restore Confederate generals’ names to two public schools in the predominantly white, rural and solidly Republican district, becoming the first in the U.S. to take such an action.

By a 6-1 vote, the board overturned its 2020 decision that stripped a high school and elementary school of their original names honoring three military leaders of the pro-slavery South in the U.S. Civil War – Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia; Confederate infantry General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, and rebel calvary commander Turner Ashby.

Under the board’s action, Mountain View High School will be renamed Stonewall Jackson High, while Honey Run Elementary School will revert to the name Ashby Lee Elementary. However, any funds required to implement the changes must come exclusively from private sources, rather than public revenue.

The vote bucked a four-year trend of U.S. schools and other public buildings and institutions removing names and symbols associated with the Confederacy, following nationwide racial justice protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

Among more than 60 schools that have abolished Confederate appellations across the country since 2020, none had reversed course until now, according to the trade publication Education Week, which has tracked the issue.

Still, the issue has remained a point of contention for many political conservatives, particularly among Southern whites, who see Confederate monuments and place names as honoring the South’s traditions and history.

Such was the argument posed by some local citizens who spoke at Thursday night’s meeting in favor of restoring the Confederate school names.

Speakers on the other side countered that such symbols and memorials are vestiges of a racist ideology that has perpetuated a sanitized “Lost Cause” myth of the Confederacy as well as the Jim Crow era of racial segregation and discrimination that followed the Civil War.

Many of them noted that Stonewall Jackson High was named in 1959 when it was a whites-only school and Virginia political leaders were still resisting racial integration as ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court under the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.

Thursday’s school board debate played out in the seat of Shenandoah County, an overwhelmingly white, heavily Republican jurisdiction about 150 miles from Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Blacks make up fewer than 3% of the county’s population, according to 2020 Census figures.

The proposal voted on was initiated by a local conservative group, the Coalition for Better Schools, which cited the “cultural significance” and “historical context” of the original names.

In its written request to the board, the group also cited surveys that it mailed to residents of the districts from which the schools’ students are drawn. It said 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 an opposing citizens group that 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 before the vote. “I had to deal with that my entire life. I don’t want my kids to deal with that.”

Kohrs expressed pessimism about the outcome of Thursday’s vote, saying the political makeup of the school board has grown more conservative over the past four years.

(Reporting by Evelyn Hockstein in Woodstock, Virginia and Julia Harte in New York; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)