Northam asks Virginia’s education leaders to rename schools that honor Confederate icons

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam implored the state’s school board leaders in a letter Monday to change school names that glorify Confederate figures, asserting that they “reflect our broken and racist past” while also perpetuating “the hurt inextricably woven into this past.”

Activism in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has reignited a spark to do away with monuments and names of schools that memorialize Confederate leaders and others. The effort to rename schools in the Richmond-area, including two Hanover County schools, have yielded different results.

In Henrico County, the principal of Douglas Freeman High School shared a message with families on June 11 in hopes of getting feedback on the school’s “Rebels” name. In Hanover, a federal lawsuit filed by the county’s NAACP branch to rename two schools, Stonewall Jackson Middle and Lee Davis High, was thrown out by the judge.

“When our public schools are named after individuals who advanced slavery and systemic racism,” the governor wrote, “and we allow those names to remain on school property, we tacitly endorse their values as our own. This is no longer acceptable.”

Earlier this year, Richmond schools renamed J.E.B. Stuart Elementary to Barack Obama Elementary School as the district aims to change the names of multiple schools.

A spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Lecia Brooks, said the organization has listed 27 Virginia schools that were named after Confederate icons in its 2019 report titled Whose Heritage?

“The SPLC has a total of 27 Virginia schools listed in our report,” Brooks said. “Fifteen (15) of those schools are currently named in honor of Confederate leaders and 12 schools have been renamed.”

James F. Lane, the state superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement Tuesday that he supports Northam’s call to remove Confederate names from schools in Virginia.

“I wholeheartedly agree with Governor Northam that it is long past time for school boards to rename schools whose names honor Confederate leaders, and for schools to dispense with nicknames that recall the Confederacy,” Lane said. “Our schools should be welcoming to all students, and the names and mascots of our schools should not promote a history of racism.”

Lane also noted that school boards across the state have already voted to rename schools in their districts that honor Confederate leaders and sympathizers, stating that he believes the push from the governor will help drive the movement.

“I am encouraged that during the last few months, several local school boards have taken steps to rename schools, and I believe that the governor’s letter will prompt overdue conversations about inclusiveness in the few divisions that still have buildings with Confederate names,” he continued.

The Fairfax County School Board voted two weeks ago to change of Robert E. Lee High School. A new name, expected to go into effect by the 2020-2021 school year, will be selected after the board gets input from the community.

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

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