Sep 14, 2015
Nearly 2,000 people have recently signed an online petition supporting “our hallowed school names” in Fairfax County, Virginia.
That is, school names chosen to reinforce legal segregation.
In the 1950’s, new white-only schools in Fairfax County were set up as a way to prevent black students from enrolling. They were named after known segregationists or Southern Civil War generals. Robert E. Lee High School, for example, opened in 1958. J.E.B. Stuart High School opened in 1959. (Stuart was a Confederate general who had led the raid against John Brown at Harpers Ferry.) W.T. Woodson High opened in 1961. It was named after the segregationist who had led the Fairfax County school system for thirty years.
After the shootings in June of nine black people in Charleston, South Carolina by Dylann Roof, a few students at J.E.B. Stuart High School started a petition to change the names of these three high schools. But their petition has been out-numbered by the counter-petition that seeks to keep the names the same.
The petitions are addressed to Fairfax School Board member Sandy Evans. She told the Washington Post last week: “This is something that can’t be rushed through. It’s a significant change. It needs to be carefully considered.”
Her words, and the counter-petition itself, reek of slavery, lynching, and the racist history of these schools themselves.
Virginia politics was controlled in the 1950’s by the Democratic Party machine of Senator Harry Byrd. He called his school program “Massive Resistance,” and implemented it state-wide. The key legislative piece was that any school that integrated would simply lose its state funding and be shut down.
The most notorious result was in Prince Edward County. For five years between 1956 and 1961, authorities closed the county’s entire public school system.
To do that, they used both charter schools and tuition vouchers – two opposite ends of the same battering ram, against public education. The voucher program helped wealthier white students attend any private school of their choice. But the majority of white students ended up in publicly funded private schools – what we would now call charter schools. Those schools were known as “Segregation Academies.” They were funded by way of tuition vouchers and property tax deductions. But they were administered outside the public school system.
As for black students in Prince Edward County – they became what was known as “the lost generation.” Some were sent away to live with relatives in other counties and states for the entire five years. But for the poorest students, who were needed at home and on farms, moving wasn’t possible. Some were able to attend church schools or training centers for part of the time. But many didn’t attend school at all. And when schools finally reopened, having been out for such a long time – it was too late for them to start.
In Fairfax County, “massive resistance” took a less dramatic form but was carried out nonetheless. It wasn’t until 1960 that a “pupil placement board” began accepting applications from black students to attend white schools. Within two years, around 108 black students had dared to integrate a school system of around 25,000 white students. Even after being admitted, these students were officially prohibited from joining school clubs and athletics. Every individual school and classroom, every sports team, every drama club had to be “broken” by courageous young people who were willing to be the first.
Those are the people the schools should be named after!