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Schools Named After Confederate Soldiers Need to Be Changed, Too

This isn't a hard decision.

fatherly logo Opinion

In 2018, Dallas Independent School District (DISD) — home to about 155,000 students in north Texas — changed the names of four elementary schools that were named after Confederate generals. Stonewall Jackson Elementary, William L. Cabell, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Robert E. Lee received new names that did not reflect their confederate roots. Stonewall Jackson was changed to Mockingbird Elementary; Cabell to Chapel Hill Preparatory School, Albert Sidney Johnston to Cedar Crest, and Robert E. Lee to Geneva Heights. The decision came from the school district’s board of trustees in the wake of the destructive Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally during which white supremacists gathered and Heather Heyer, a white protester, was murdered. 

As protesters make headlines for toppling confederate monuments and statues all across the country in the ongoing fight for racial justice, and as President Trump digs his heels in and stirs up his supporters by saying that such actions are a war against heritage, the DISD’s decision would be national news. But in 2018, it wasn’t. It simply happened. Should it have happened sooner? Yes. But it is not radical to say that children should not walk into a building named after someone who fought to preserve slavery and white supremacy. No school in the U.S. should be named after those who would have enslaved other human beings. 

As was the case with the formerly titled Stonewall Jackson in Dallas, a school that has existed since 1939, the vast majority of confederate monuments (either by name or statue) were put in place during the Jim Crow era. Indeed, in 1956, Georgia redesigned its state flag to include the rebel flag; in 1962, South Carolina put the flag on top of its capitol building for the first time. They were put in place as blunt and terrible reminders. 

Those reminders are still in place. EdWeek reported in June that at least 205 schools in 18 states were named for men with ties to the Confederacy. Fifty-eight were named for Robert E. Lee, a dozen for Stonewall Jackson and another dozen for Sidney Lanier. Since June 29 of this year, spurned on by recent protests and rallies, two of those schools have changed their names. More institutions should follow suit. 

It’s not just about public schools named after confederate soldiers. It’s also about those named after figures who upheld systems of white supremacy long after the Civil War. For instance, there are 22 public schools in the south named after politicians who signed the Southern Manifesto, the document that opposed school integration following 1954’s landmark Brown v. Board decision. That means there are 22 public schools named after individuals who fought against desegregation

It’s clear that the names of James K. Vardaman (who once said “every Negro in the state will be lynched”), Strom Thurmond (who held the longest-ever filibuster as a congressman in opposition to the Civil Rights Act), and Richard B. Russell (who called America a “white man’s country” and also, in an interesting note, wrote the National School Lunch Act), were put into place to enforce a worldview. And they weren’t done so in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and not when “times were different.” These were men who worked at the height of the Jim Crow Era. Much of their political worldview was shaped in opposition to Brown v. Board and The Civil Rights Act. They were explicitly fighting desegregation; they were fighting against allowing Black children to attend the schools in the districts they represented in Congress. 

To have an institution still bear the name of such individuals sends a clear reminder to children of color and their parents. The details of that reminder might have been put best by Emmanuel Acho. A former linebacker in the NFL who played for the Browns and the Eagles, Acho grew up in Dallas, where many of those schools have since been renamed. This year, he launched the popular YouTube show “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man,” where he has frank discussions about race with people across the spectrum.

In a recent episode, his guests were Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper fame. Chip more or less asked Acho for his thoughts about the ongoing confederate monument debate. “Maybe having a school named after a confederate general — that I have to attend as a black person — maybe that’s a problem,” Acho said. “Maybe having statues littered across campuses that I have to look at of men who would have oppressed and enslaved and potentially executed me, maybe that’s the problem. In America… we need to do a better job of properly discussing and placing our ‘heroes.’”

School names are a reasonable place to begin, and the South would have most of the work to do. The majority of schools named after Confederate soldiers are in seven states: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. In two of those states, Alabama and South Carolina, current laws actually restrict both the renaming of public schools named for Confederate leaders and statue removal. It’s as though when the schools were named lawmakers knew exactly the meaning behind them — and wanted to safeguard the legacy of slavery against anyone who might want to recontextualize it.

Calls to rename schools have only increased since the 2017 Charlottesville rally. In Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam wrote to school boards requesting they change the names of their schools and mascots that honor Confederate soldiers and leaders. But even before his letter, some districts had already begun to lead the charge in Old Dominion. 

California districts were looking to rename schools and other buildings that they felt glorified racism. For instance, in Fullerton, California, one school renamed an auditorium that initially had the namesake of Louis Plummer, a former Fullerton superintendent who had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Long Beach, California residents have called for their district to rename Woodrow Wilson High School because he was also a segregationist and a racist. (There is still a Woodrow Wilson in Dallas, as well as in many other states) Just days ago in Montgomery, Alabama, the school board for Montgomery Public Schools voted to rename Jefferson Davis High School, Robert E. Lee High School, and Sidney Lanier High School.

Progress is indeed, coming. But the fight is far from over. The idea that we’re still having this debate is, frankly, ridiculous. Millions of Black people and people of color live in these states and send their kids to schools in buildings that are named after people who would have enslaved them. While certain politicians wring their hands about forgetting our history or letting our nation’s children become soft snowflakes, Black children harden themselves to the reality of ever-present racism in the structure of their lives every time they walk into educational institutions. The least that can be done is to change the names of these schools to no longer honor these people.