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When Changing a School’s Name Is a Lesson in History and Progress

In 1971, I was a fifth-grade student at J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School in Richmond, Va. My younger brother and sister and I left our home in the morning and walked the leafy avenues to the two-story brick building with the handsome rotunda greeting us on arrival.

I have fond memories of the school. The long lunch breaks where we frolicked on the asphalt playground; my first crush; and bonding with a clever, popular student who became my tennis buddy and best friend.

But, as an 11-year-old, though I didn’t have the language and maturity to articulate it, I was puzzled by why Stuart Elementary carried the name of a Confederate general. When I attended the school, more than 90 percent of its student body looked like me. They were African-American.

General Stuart was a racist. His Confederate ideas supported White supremacy and he fought in the Civil War to preserve slavery. If he had his way, all of the Black children who walked past his name each week to enter the school would never have been able to do so. Their parents and grandparents would have been enslaved people and the little Black children who populated J.E.B. Stuart would have been born slaves, too.

I don’t know if it was triumphant or tragic that we got to go to a school named for Stuart, but I do know it never should have come to be.

So, I was glad to receive the news that when students, of which 90 percent still are Black, return to the building this fall, they will not be greeted by the name and memory of someone who fought to vanquish them into lives of servitude. The Richmond School Board recently voted to rename the school Barack Obama Elementary.

To grow up in the South, in Richmond, the former Capital of the Confederacy, in the 1970s was to grow up in the harsh light of segregation. There was little attempt to even keep it in the shadows. That my elementary school was 90 percent African-American reflected the racially segregated composition of neighborhoods and a mindset and legacy of mostly White city leadership that social and educational apartheid was standard and acceptable. School attendance was assigned based on where you lived. Where you lived was largely controlled by economic, housing, and racial structures that divided our city. If you lived in a Black neighbor, you went to a Black school.

In my hometown, the broad, grand Monument Avenue was dedicated to the memory of Confederate leaders. They were all White, and all male. When a statue of professional tennis player, humanitarian, social activist and Richmond native, Arthur Ashe, was placed on the avenue in 1996, it ignited an uproar.

In recent years, months even, America has been reckoning with its slave-owning history and how to memorialize such an inglorious and ignoble past. South Carolina has recently apologized for its role in the slave trade. Monuments to Confederate leaders have been removed from public places. School districts throughout the South are stripping away the names of White men who advanced ideals of enslavement and race-based supremacy.

Keeping the names of segregationists on public school buildings goes against the values of modern public education: that all should be educated.

Public education, regardless of race or class, improves the lives of all individuals and improves outcomes for all communities. It can be a great equalizer and ladder of opportunity in any community. When public buildings get named for someone who worked directly against those efforts, it’s an affront to the very value that public education represents.

Too often, signs and monuments shape-shift U.S. history and diminish our ugly past. What must not be forgotten is that Stuart, and others like him, used their White male power and privilege to actively perpetrate racism, to foster a system that actively bestowed rights and power to some, but not to others. It was destructive power.

It was a historical crime, but the past is present. The negative consequences of their actions on African-American lives have reverberated across generations, impacting the wealth and health of families and communities that live with us today.

By keeping the name of J.E.B. Stuart, the Richmond School Board would have been asking the community, and the citizens perhaps most damaged and marginalized by his pursuits, to continue to participate in the erasure of his full history and absolve him of responsibility for the crimes committed against African-Americans. We could no longer ask the kids, their parents, or the community to walk past that name and ignore his crimes, accepting it as normal and legitimate. It had to go.

Sure, changing a name might seem easy. It does not solve every inequity in public education. But it is a necessary, though complicated, first step to a meaningful, thoughtful conversation about the role of racist symbols and how to move toward justice. Let’s continue to fully fund all schools so that all students get better chances.

But let’s first send public school children into schools where they can proudly cite the names of the buildings.

When my brother and sister and I first meandered our way to school, nothing would have made us prouder than to know that the building where we learned was an accurate memorial to the man or woman who sacrificed for us to be there.

Dr. Ervin Dyer, a Richmond native, is a sociologist and writer based in Pittsburgh. His work focuses on the African diaspora.

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