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Video: Arlington School Board Votes 5-0 to Move Ahead with Changing the Name of Washington-Lee High School

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I’m happy to see Arlington finally move in this direction, as there’s simply no excuse in the year 2018 to be honoring people who took up arms against our country and our constitution, let alone for the right to enslave other people. Yes, Robert E. Lee’s life was complicated, but in the end, that life should be studied in the history books, not enshrined on our public school buildings, let alone right next to George Washington.

Check out the videos, below, first of two great speeches by a current W-L High School senior (Malcolm Douglass) and a recent alumnus (Dana Raphael, Class of 2013). According to Malcolm Douglass (bolding added by me for emphasis):

I understand to a lot of you this is extremely troubling that part of you is being stripped away by the idea that the name of the school you attended could be struck from the record, as you seem to see it. However…it’s one thing to argue to keep it in order of…the legacy of Washington-Lee and what you went through through its halls, but to defend the name in defense of Lee himself is impermissible…As long as we remain the blue and the gray, we equate Lee and Washington, making the Confederacy seem like an noble struggle, not a campaign to perpetuate slavery. It bothers me that Lee, a man who fought to divide this country, gets to be placed next to General Washington, a man whose entire life was dedicated to the service of this nation. And finally, it bothers me that Lee’s name is attached to the achievements of my fellow alumni, who have done many great things in this world. It is unfair that Lee gets to take credit in a sense from these people and their astounding accomplishments. And there’s a lot of attention drawn to what he did after the war. He only lived five years after the war. And regardless of what he did, you do NOT get a mulligan on trying to destroy this country. Thank you.

Next, here’s what Dana Raphael had to say (bolding added, again, by me for emphasis):

A Civil War general who fought and risked their life to preserve the dignity and freedom of all people deserves to be honored. I am speaking of course about Harriet Tubman. She led Union raids on southern plantations and is thought to have freed over 1,000 slaves. Her troops and followers called her “the general.” When we name a school or erect a monument bearing a person’s name, we stamp their legacy with the seal of official approval. The school board received a report concluding that Robert E. Lee does not reflect the APS mission, vision and core values. That conclusion is inescapable. Lee’s defenders, as you’ve heard tonight, often quote him calling slavery an evil. But few people have cared to read his words in context. In that same letter to his wife Lee says, and I quote, “the blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa; the painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things.”

Lee is not a man worthy of Honor he was a traitor a slaveholder a racist and fought to preserve the institution of chattel slavery. Adopting the policy would allow the board to reject Lee’s legacy of hate and adopt a new legacy one that honors the fight for liberty and equality. While I know we aren’t deciding the name today, Harriet Tubman deserves the honor. We could even keep our mascot, the generals. Her face next to George Washington’s, greeting Arlington’s diverse students as they walk through the front doors every day, that is a principal legacy worth honoring. I was proud to attend Washington Lee, but I was embarrassed by its name as a student then and as a graduate now. I would be proud to say I attended Washington-Tubman. Thank you.

Now, here’s Arlington School Board member Monique O’Grady give a powerful explanation for why the Washington-Lee name needs to be changed.

I move to approve the staff naming committee’s recommendation for renaming Washington Lee High School because Robert E. Lee’s name does not meet the newly adopted APS school naming criteria and to direct the superintendent to initiate a community process to rename Washington-Lee High School that aligns with the naming criteria in School Board policy 50-1.10.  I further direct the superintendent to identify members of the Washington-Lee High School renaming committee by September 2018. The school renaming committee will be charged to work through the fall of 2018, in accordance with the Arlington public schools naming of facilities implementation procedures 50-1.10 and to submit a recommendation for a new name for Washington-Lee by December 2018 for consideration and approval by the School Board

…I would like to thank the Arlington public school staff that prepared their suggestions for updating our naming policy. I appreciate that APS not only sought out people who interact with our students daily, but also staff who themselves were APS students. The time came for the naming policy to be updated, and I think the committee has taken many perspectives into account, as well as APS’ current and future mission, vision and core values. I support their work and I am comfortable that their recommendations set guideposts for naming that will honor all students in our majority minority school district. As an academic institution, it is important that we remain open to learning from the past and improving in the future. As we become a more diverse community, we must remain open to the perspectives of many and how holding on to some elements of our past can in fact still have an impact on our future.

The strategic plan we are considering tonight reaffirms many of the values that have led our system for years. They include developing global citizens, valuing our diversity and operating in an equitable manner. Here in Arlington, one of our high schools honors a Virginian whose past does not meet the criteria laid out by the proposed new policy now adopted. Robert E. Lee has been called a hero, someone who worked to reunite the nation after the Civil War and a misunderstood American. Others have called him a traitor, a racist and a person who led the south into battle to defend the right to enslave one people to benefit another. Fortunately for us, as an academic institution required to teach about Robert E. Lee as part of Virginia and American history, his truthful place in history will be explored in the classroom by our students. Recently, as I was going through my own children’s previous academic work, I actually ran into an example of that in my own home – a booklet that one of my children made about Arlington House and those who lived in it, including Robert E. Lee, members of his family and the slaves that served them.

Whatever you believe about Lee, today our country is still impacted by slavery, including the fight to prolong it, and the Jim Crow era that followed. One example of that is the actual naming of Washington-Lee high school. General Lee’s name and other symbols of the Confederacy were immortalized not just to honor Lee, but I believe, also to intimidate African-Americans. Laws that made it illegal to teach people of African descent to read and write made it legal to have separate and ultimately unequal schools, helped perpetuate the idea that people of color didn’t deserve equal opportunity, and that even if they were given it, they couldn’t achieve excellence. And lastly, that they weren’t welcome in schools and in communities.

Those sentiments and beliefs were abundant 93 years ago when Washington-Lee High School was named and opened — and they are wrong. Unfortunately, General Lee’s name on our school is a painful reminder to some of that time and those sentiments. Today, those values and beliefs held by some in our nation still have an impact on some of our students and their families. Whether it’s having a sales associate watching a bit more closely when you shop or even being discouraged from attending an open house when you knock on the door. I know, because those things have happened to me.

Here in APS we do believe in academic excellence and opportunity for all. We do believe that the color of your skin, physical ability, country of origin, native language or income shouldn’t have an impact on your rights or success. This step helps ensure that we are keeping our students at the center of all we do. Celebrating your school pride should not include having to wear a shirt like this one that honors a person who may not share your values. That is why I’m interested in finding a new name that builds on Washington-Lee graduates’ great accomplishments, their pride, and I believe one that demonstrates the value of our Washington-Lee alumni, the current students and our future graduates. I hope that members of the alumni will work with APS to find a new name that all students and all graduates can be proud of, that follows this updated naming criteria, and most importantly, that represents our APS values and the values of our Arlington community. Thank you.

And finally, here’s some discussion leading up to the unanimous (5-0) vote to move ahead with renaming Washington-Lee High School. School Board member Nancy Van Doren urges that we proceed with the renaming in a “respectful, thoughtful, kind way that unifies us.” School Board member Tannia Talento says “it’s difficult to represent our whole community when our community is split, but I think that there is a compromise…there may be a way forward that addresses the needs of our whole community.” And School Board member Reid Goldstein says, correctly, that Robert E. Lee’s life was “very complicated,” but ultimately that he “took up arms to overthrow the duly elected government of the United States; he led an army responsible for hundreds of thousands of American deaths; and he abrogated the oath he took as a West Point graduate and as an Army officer to support and defend the constitution.” So, “Arlington Public Schools can not and should not venerate these activities.” In the end, “when a governmental entity chisels a name in 2-foot-high letters on the face of a public building, paid for with 100 million taxpayer dollars, it says something, it means something, it sends a message about who our heroes and role models are, whose exploits we revere, what values we want the community to embrace and emulate…Times change, and with it heroes and role models change.”