FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — If you ask Bill Ratliff, a rising sophomore at J.E.B. Stuart High School in northern Virginia, his school might just as well be named for Osama bin Laden.
“They’re both terrorists. They both murdered American soldiers,” he said outside a school board work session where 11 board members tried to figure out what to do about a school named for a slaveholding Confederate general.
For two years, they have hemmed and hawed over a request to change the name from those who believe it’s wrong for Fairfax County to continue to honor Stuart, who was mortally wounded in an 1864 battle.
A year ago, the board pawned off the decision to a task force that it hoped would find a compromise. Instead, the task force fractured so badly it issued two separate reports — one in favor of changing the name, one opposed. The reports delved into the age-old thicket of whether slavery was the Civil War’s primary cause.
Stuart High, as it’s more commonly known, opened in 1959. The school board chose the name in 1958, during the years in which Virginia was embroiled in what became known as Massive Resistance to federal desegregation efforts. There’s dispute as to whether the Stuart name was picked as a subtle jab at integration, or whether they simply chose to honor Stuart, a native Virginian who at the school site once famously fooled the Union Army into inaction by displaying so-called Quaker cannons — tree trunks that from a distance looked like an array of imposing artillery.
Today, Stuart is one of the most diverse schools in Fairfax County, which hosts the 10th largest school district in the nation and one of the wealthiest. Fairfax County has grown into a sprawling suburb of the nation’s capital, and while some families have lived in the area for generations with firmly planted Virginia roots, students at Stuart are more likely to come from India or Somalia or Vietnam than from a multigenerational Virginia family.
The debate over the school name comes as the national question of how to honor Confederate heroes, if at all, is flaring up again. In Virginia, Republican Corey Stewart nearly pulled off an upset in last month’s GOP gubernatorial primary by making defense of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville that had been targeted for removal a top issue in his campaign. In New Orleans, Richmond and elsewhere, civic leaders have weighed removal of Confederate monuments.
The debate over the Stuart name change kicked off in earnest in 2015 when actress Julianne Moore, who attended Stuart in the ’70s, and Hollywood producer Bruce Cohen, a Stuart alumnus, launched a petition demanding the name change.
Proponents of a change say it’s especially hurtful for students of color to have to attend a school named for a defender of the Confederacy.
Bill Ratliff’s mother, Debbie Ratliff, said opposition to the change shows that the Old South lives on, even in booming Fairfax County.
“It’s the old Lost Cause arguments,” she said, referring to the school of thought that casts the Confederacy in heroic terms. “This is still Virginia, and this debate more than anything brings that home.”
Opponents cite estimates indicating it would cost $600,000 to $900,000 to change the name — removing Stuart from the school facade, a stone monument, athletic turf, scoreboards, team uniforms and everything else, though name-change supporters have questioned whether the figure is inflated.
Opponents also cite surveys indicating students and alumni are split or ambivalent on the issue.
Some see it as an attack on Southern heritage. Chica Brunsvold wore her daughter’s ’80s vintage letter jacket to the board’s work session and said students take pride in the Stuart name.
“The Civil War is long over. This is punishing the South. Abraham Lincoln didn’t want to punish the South,” she said. “Just because a couple Hollywood types say we should change — give me a break!”
Another complication: If the board votes to remove Stuart’s name, what will it do about another Fairfax County school, Robert E. Lee High in nearby Springfield? Board members say there appears to be no appetite in the Lee community for a name change, and several questioned whether pulling Stuart but leaving Lee will leave them open to charges of hypocrisy.
The board is scheduled to vote Thursday and seems evenly split. Member Ryan McElveen suggested renaming the school for portraitist Gilbert Stuart, so the Stuart name could continue without honoring a Confederate.
Numerous members lamented the difficulties of finding a compromise and worried that a close 6-5 vote will feed the divisiveness that the issue has exposed.
“I understand now why some districts just call their schools P.S. 143,” board member Megan McLaughlin said.
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