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Not Just a Name: Students of Color Reflect on the Name Change Process for J.E.B. Stuart High School

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by Nebal Maysaud

Diversity is Fairfax County’s J.E.B. Stuart High School’s greatest asset. As a school with a mix of immigrants from all over the globe, my alma mater’s range in ethnic, racial and class experiences is held as a beacon of progress in our country.

Back in 1958, in contrast, the Fairfax County School Board decided that they could not only reject the results of Brown vs. Board of Education, but that they wanted to send an additional message that would intimidate and terrorize black students trying to desegregate their schools. So they decided to name the school J.E.B. Stuart High School, after a man who fought for the Confederacy.

When students of J.E.B. Stuart High School came forward this year to demand the school be renamed, the community had a vote on what the new name should be. Everyone had three choices: the first choice counted for three points, the second for two, and the third for one. Arguments within the community about cost and history were heated, with questions about how to pay for the name change being by far the most popular defense to keeping the name. After fighting for the name of Barbara Rose Johns High School, who was an activist and woman of color, the name that received the most points was Stuart High School. While this was because of the point system and not because of popular support (Thurgood Marshall received the most votes; Stuart and Barbara Rose Johns were within 5 votes of that range), this result was saddening for the community. This was one of many aspects of the debate that has left students of color feeling ignored by their community, administration, and school board.

It is important to note that most families voted for the school to be named after a person of color. Sixty-six percent of the votes were divided between Thurgood Marshall and Barbara Rose Johns, along with ten other candidates, while the people fighting for the name Stuart were united. The weighted point system then gave the people voting for Stuart an advantage, giving the most points to a decision made by only a few members of the community, with just seventeen percent of the vote.

Of course, because Stuart received the most weighted points does not mean that the school board must accept it. Throughout this whole process, white community members arguing to keep the name have complained about how “divisive” this issue has been for the community. My response is that this perceived “unity” is based upon the silencing of People of Color. One look at our country’s racial tensions reveals that we were never united to begin with, with hate groups on the rise silencing minorities from the White House to the NFL. There is only one side being divisive: the side trying to keep the monument of segregation alive. That is why this name change is important. It is a test to see if we have progressed in the past 49 years, and to see whether we can let go of the legacy of J.E.B. Stuart and white supremacy.

Students of Color and their families are dismayed, although not too surprised, at the behavior of certain members of the community towards People of Color. What was supposed to be an easy problem for the community to solve devolved into divisive demands to honor the legacy of J.E.B. Stuart.  For that reason, I wanted to focus this piece on the opinions of current Stuart students, particularly students of color. Since black students were targeted at the original naming of this school, it only makes sense that black students at least have a say in how the school should be renamed.

But that doesn’t appear to have been the case: all but one student of color I asked agreed that black and brown voices need to be more central in this debate. One student argued that “black students were targeted in the creation of the school, [so] it’s only logical to allow them to have the most say”, while another said that “although the students of color [are the] majority of the population at Stuart, they are also misrepresented and their voices are unheard in many events involving the school.”

Not only do they believe they should have more say, but some students of color say their voices are being silenced. There was resentment towards the Stuart administration which, as one student believes, “think they can target [People of Color] at Stuart and let these white kids get away with anything.” This student then proceeded to express remorse for their school, saying “there are so many things wrong with Stuart, I can’t wait to go to college. The admins are snakes, they shove everything under the rug, they think they can hide everything.”

Many students mentioned being silenced in one way or another, and testified that community members just want to forget history and “move on.” One told me they “always thought the name wasn’t that big of a deal and the diversity of our school only proves that we’ve overcome the implications of the name. But hearing the insults and reasoning behind people supporting the name only makes me want to push harder for a name change.”

Another student explained to me that “the name Stuart to me means that the community doesn’t actually care for my opinion or voice as a minority in this community. The turnout of the vote means that the community would rather have a name without meaning than to try to make the minorities in the community feel welcome and wanted.”

When asked about voters’ behavior, one student told me that “people are just afraid of change. Their legacy and the legacy of Stuart HS is something that ties in deeply with the community and they don’t want to let go of that. That is why people don’t want to change it. Money is just the excuse people use to refute the idea of the name change when really that isn’t even it.”

By quoting these students, I’m not making a claim for the whole student body, but giving a chance for students of color to express the opinions they otherwise would not have felt comfortable expressing.

People of Color understand that history doesn’t just move on. Each generation, we inherit the wounds white supremacy grafted unto us, and are told to forget about them as new wounds are made. We as a community must understand that racism has its roots in history and economics. Each provide an excuse for the other: cheap labor was desired for the cotton fields, so Europeans created a hierarchy of races as evidenced by Virginian slave laws in the 1600s and 1700s. White Supremacy works as a system because it molded itself directly into the economy.

Today, the biggest reason the community rejected to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School is because of money. “We’re treated as if we’re less than at Stuart” one student describes, “and it’s annoying no one’s doing anything about it and admin is finding ways to shut us up. When your teachers mock the name change and treat it like some joke so are students. A lot of people argued that money was an issue, maybe they’re right, but a lot of people are supporting the name change they’re willing to financially support us.”

Racism causes us to value black and brown lives less than white ones by default, and so we come to view any investments on People of Color as a waste of money. The same people arguing about the cost are also calling for an expensive “communications audit” and are running a campaign to recall School Board member Sandy Evans, who represents the district. To them, these actions are worth the money, but acknowledging the humanity of black and brown students is not. This line of logic simply makes no sense. It is a cheap loophole for those looking for any possible reason to keep the name, and they are not fooling anyone.

The need to contemplate our history and rethink what we memorialize is a pressing debate in the U.S. and a valuable learning opportunity for our students. With the attempts to take down this memorial to the Confederacy, surely the students must have had some great and enlightening discussions to learn from each other. Unfortunately, that was not allowed. One student told me they “weren’t allowed to talk about it in class. Our principal did not allow it because it did not ‘fit into the curriculum’ of any class. I think we should be allowed to discuss it in class because it allows for people to see each other’s viewpoints.” Students also expressed that it “has been extremely hard to share my opinion with my white teachers and classmates.” It should be up to the individual teachers to decide whether there should be a discussion; limiting it across the whole school is causing a lot of anxiety to accumulate among students of color.

Since the Confederacy fought to defend slavery, as written in numerous individual states’ declarations of secession, J.E.B. Stuart put his life on the line for the continued enslavement, torture, and genocide of black Americans. That action may not emotionally impact the white students, but students of color feel it. An anonymous student told me that “going to a school named after a man who actively represented a force that denied my ancestors’ humanity…no one should be forced to grapple with the emotions and discomfort that come with that” while a white student also admitted that “as a white student I will never know what it feels like to go to a school named after a person who fought to keep people who look like me in chains.”

Now in 2017, the community has the option to correct that racist decision, but enough people voted for an option to continue J.E.B. Stuart’s legacy instead with simply “Stuart”. Now, GOP school board members Wilson and Schultz, as well as Democrats Corbett Sanders and Kaufax, have stated at the most recent work session on October 16th that they support this option. Their decisions represent a failure to acknowledge, much less act on, the need for reparations owed to our students of color.

This is about nothing other than racism. As comforting as it is to live in willful ignorance, we cannot ignore the current rise of white supremacy and neo-fascism in both our country and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Students of color recognized this right away, sharing that “everyone should be able to voice their opinion without feeling belittled. It’s not fair because I always treat my peers and teachers with the utmost respect when hearing out their opinions but when I express my opinion I feel like they just turn it down without giving me a chance. My experience with other people of color has been mostly positive and it’s not because we share the same thought. It is because they have an open mind when looking at a topic like this. They aren’t being arrogant.”

Sadly, it is not surprising for there to be backlash against renaming J.E.B. Stuart High School after a person of color. It is because we have not done enough to combat racism and specifically anti-blackness since we erected this confederate monument in 1958.

For the students of color, I would like to say thank you. Your activism has inspired many around you, including some dedicated adults in the area. Generations before you created a dark and tumultuous future, yet after seeing how much you care, how deeply you understand, and all your concerns, I have faith that you will lead us to a better future. Your words, while silenced by the administration and some members of the school board, have echoed as a ring of hope around the community.

If I can offer you any advice, keep fighting. Support each other, and give yourself room to breathe every now and then, but never stop the fight. Even if the name is changed to Barbara Rose Johns High School, there is still a deep, racist disease growing in our backyards. We cannot let the infestation grow. Like Barbara Johns, you too have fought and inspired those around you, and I hope you will continue to demand your voices be heard. Your voices are beautiful, and they are needed.

  • woodrowfan

    is there a good source on the original naming of the school?

  • Esther

    Correction: The author’s name is spelled Nebal MAYsaud, not MEYsaud. Please edit this. Thank you.

  • JodyM

    I’m a parent in the Stuart pyramid. I just wanted to add that people have also been advocating passionately for Justice Thurgood Marshall (who lived in the community and whose widow still does) and Col. Louis Mendez (who also lived in the community). Barbara Rose Johns is a great option but there has been a lot of advocacy for the other two names as well. If a new name is not selected next week, this divisiveness will only continue. The school board needs to rename the school so our community can fix this shameful mistake of the past and move on.