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Restoring History: Movement to return Confederate-linked names to schools garners traction

The main issue for organizers is what the renaming process was based on, and who was -- and wasn't -- involved in these decisions.

Published: May 7, 2024 11:17pm

Updated: May 8, 2024 9:49am

A movement to restore the names of Confederate military leaders on schools is garnering traction in a Virginia county, with the school board set to vote on the matter this week amid fierce opposition from minority groups.

Stonewall Jackson High School and Ashby-Lee Elementary School were renamed Mountain View High School and Honey Run Elementary School after the Shenandoah County School Board passed a resolution in July 2020 that condemned racism and affirmed the creation of an "inclusive environment."

The resolution passed following the murder of George Floyd, a black man whose death at the hands of police sparked a summer of protests fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The schools, located in Quicksburg, officially started to go by their new names by the 2021-2022 school year following about $305,000 in expenses to update things such as sports uniforms and building signs, The Northern Virginia Daily reported at the time.

Because the decision was made during the COVID-19 pandemic, "there was really no public input," said Mike Scheibe, who joined the Coalition for Better Schools after the board passed the resolution to rename the schools.

The only way a person could voice their thoughts during the meeting was if they signed up for a virtual meeting, but even then, the school board had made its decision before the meeting, Scheibe told Just the News.

A Freedom of Information Act request showed that the board had decided to change the schools' names before it was even discussed at the meeting, according to Scheibe.

Sarah Kohrs, a community member who started a petition to keep the new names on the schools, told Just the News that the board reaffirmed the decision in September 2020 "when meetings were in person and after continued conversations with local residents." The board directed the superintendent to lay out a timeline for implementing the new names during the September meeting, but the school board's agenda states that up to 20 people were allowed to attend the meeting due to social distancing constraints.

The school board previously voted 3-3 in 2022 to restore the names, but the three members who opposed the name restoration have since left the board, The Northern Virginia Daily reported.

Now, the board is set to vote Thursday on whether the names of Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson, Cmd. Turner Ashby and Gen. Robert E. Lee, all three of whom owned slaves at one time, should be restored to the schools. Scheibe is confident that the proposal will pass, especially considering a survey his organization sent out showed that it had overwhelming support.

The survey was sent to more than 8,500 residents in the district that feeds into both the high school and the elementary school in question, and 1,160 people responded. Of those responses, 91.3% of people voted in favor of reverting the schools back to their previous names. The county has an estimated population of 45,200 as of 2023, about 85% of whom are white and not Hispanic, says a U.S. Census Bureau estimate.

Kohrs, meanwhile, said the "heart of the issue" is the question of "what history do we remember and preserve," and that the school district has a "history of massive resistance to integration." Her petition, which can be signed by anyone, has more than 680 signatures. 

The Virginia NAACP last month issued a statement condemning efforts to revert the schools' names. 

"Our reasoning is sound: Military leaders of the Confederate States of America took up arms against the United States of America and fought to preserve and expand the peculiar institution of slavery. These hateful, white supremacist ideals should not be memorialized anywhere the public–which includes descendants of enslaved Africans–is required to support financially," the association said

The Council on American-Islamic Relations also disavowed the effort. 

"It is disturbing that anyone would seek to have their children attend a school named after traitors who sought to divide our nation in support of slavery and white supremacy," CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper said. "We call on school board members to reject this renewed attempt to honor the ugly legacy of the Confederacy."

Scheibe, meanwhile, has seen a petition signed by 3,400 residents who want the name restored, he said.

For Scheibe, who moved to Shenandoah County less than a decade ago, the issue is not about who the schools are named after but about the renaming process. He said that while some people feel the renaming was a "knee-jerk" reaction in response to the Floyd protests, most of the people involved in the effort agree with him that the entire renaming "process was flawed."

He also said the main way to deal with racism is to have a conversation, rather than making "just symbolic gestures" like renaming the schools.

Furthermore, the Virginia State Supreme Court issued two rulings since last year that limited what decisions school boards could make virtually during the pandemic. Scheibe, who has worked for attorneys in the past, said that because of the rulings, if someone were to sue the Shenandoah County School District over the renaming, the district would have to vacate it.

Kohrs, however, said: "Ultimately, it's not about process, it's about the outcome."

Scheibe said that after the school board's vote Thursday, if his effort succeeds as he expects it to, he would "encourage" anyone who opposes the schools' names to try to change them by going through the proper channels. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from Sarah Kohrs.

Follow Madeleine Hubbard on X or Instagram.

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