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By Moriah Balingit and T.Rees Shapiro,
As statues of Confederate leaders fall in New Orleans and symbols of the Confederacy are stripped from flagpoles and buildings nationwide, a Northern Virginia high school named for a rebel general continues to grapple with whether that name should be stripped from its buildings.
J.E.B. Stuart High School is one of the most racially diverse schools in Fairfax County. About 54 percent of its approximately 2,130 students are Hispanic; 22 percent are white; 13 percent are Asian; 9 percent are black; and 2 percent are multiracial.
Students began lobbying to change the name two years ago after an avowed white supremacist massacred nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C. Their movement gained traction when a Hollywood producer and school graduate, Bruce Cohen, started a petition with actress Julianne Moore, a fellow graduate, that drew 35,000 signatures.
The students argued that when the county school board named the school after Stuart in the late 1950s, it was trying to send a message to black students that they were not welcome. Those who want to keep the school’s name disagree. The school did not admit black students until 1961.
In 2015, the school board opened the door to a possible name change when it amended a policy on naming buildings. A year later, the board established a committee to examine whether the high school should be renamed.
But the committee has remained fractured. Next week, it plans to issue two sets of reports because those who support the name and those who want to change it cannot agree even on historical facts. Tensions have flared as some committee members have accused others of fomenting racism and staging disinformation campaigns. Rhetoric has gotten so hot that some members say they fear appearing at open forums.
Stuart was a U.S. Military Academy graduate who joined the rebel cause, rising to command the cavalry of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He was mortally wounded in battle near Richmond in 1864.
George Alber, an NAACP activist who is on the committee, said the two-year debate has been an ordeal filled with “rancor and discord.”
“We could have done this better,” Alber said. “This has been set up as such an adversarial proceeding. . . . There’s no healing, no coming together in the community.”
This week, the debate intensified when those opposed to changing the name announced plans for a history tour of local Civil War battle sites where Stuart saw action. The tour, to take place on Sunday, will start at the high school and use a county school bus. It will be led by an amateur historian who agrees that Stuart’s legacy is worthy of the honor.
The school system invited the community to the event through email and highlighted it on its website, while some committee members separately circulated a flier featuring the Confederate flag. That shocked many people in the community.
Committee member Vince Nettuno, who favors keeping the name, said the tour is an “effort is to expand their education as far as what J.E.B. Stuart did during his tenure and why the county decided he was a heroic figure.”
Nettuno, an alumnus whose daughter also graduated from the school, dismissed concerns about the flier. “Nobody’s going to go blind looking at that Confederate flag on that flier,” he said. Nettuno said organizers were merely trying to be historically accurate and pointed out that it also featured an American flag — or, as he called it, “the Union flag.”
Other committee members who back the name change say they are worried that the version of history pushed by Don Hakenson, who is leading the tour, will be slanted. They see the event as an effort to expand support for keeping the name.
“We’re concerned about it,” said Debbie Ratliff, a committee member who backs the name change. “I don’t want my tax dollars paying for it.”
Hakenson, who has led tours of Civil War sites for 18 years and has written several books on local Civil War history, said that he merely plans to present the facts.
“People have their own right to look at things any way they want to,” Hakenson said.
Supporters of keeping the name say the other side has unfairly impugned Stuart’s legacy without considering historical context. They point out that Stuart freed his slaves, that he had a mixed-race servant and that he was considered a brilliant young tactician who exemplified qualities worth emulating. Many of those who back the name disagree with historians who say that the Civil War was fought over slavery. They also contend that a name change would be too costly.
“He also didn’t lynch people,” said Denise Patton, a committee member and former history teacher. “He was a very, very humane officer.”
On Thursday night, many members refused to come to the school auditorium for a forum organized by supporters of the name change. Those members who stayed away said that they worried they would encounter hostility because they had been called racists in online forums. At least a half-dozen Fairfax police officers kept watch over the meeting, where people spoke mostly in support of the name change. There were a few who spoke against it, receiving the occasional jeer.
Kayla Longmayer, 14, a freshman at the school who is of mixed race and a descendant of slaves, tearfully shared how hurtful it was to see Stuart’s name on the walls of her schoolhouse.
“J.E.B. Stuart,” Kayla said, her voice quaking, “J.E.B. Stuart fought to keep my people enslaved.”