Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Motivation Behind 1958 Vote?

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Motivation Behind 1958 Vote?

In last week's Gazette, Jim Gearing wrote to criticize my recent letter concerning the changing of the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School. He started by identifying himself as a member of the "Virginia Byrd" family, perhaps thinking that this "admission" would short-circuit any challenge to his version of the "facts." He is mistaken.

Mr. Gearing characterized my letter as including "the usual logic errors about renaming the school." He then stated that "the school was named to send a message, and not a subtle one," implying that the "message" was resistance to integration after Brown v. Board of Education. In fact, the records of the Fairfax County School Board (FCSB) concerning the school naming provide absolutely no information concerning why the FCSB named a high school in memory of J.E.B. Stuart. The recorded minutes only record a motion to do so and the vote in favor. There is no record of any discussion that may have occurred at the meeting. The contemporaneous reasoning was that the naming had to do with the location of Stuart's military encampment on Munson Hill near the school.

To be factual, at the very same meeting in at which J.E.B. Stuart High School was named, on Oct. 7, 1958, James Madison High School was also named. President Madison was a slave owner. By contrast, J.E.B. Stuart owned slaves including by inheritance and released them in 1859. Notably, in 1859, Stuart was 26 years old, five years beyond his graduation from West Point, and an officer in the U.S. Army. I could not uncover how long Stuart owned the slaves before freeing them, however, his young age means it couldn't have been a lengthy period of time. I also note he was an Army officer during that time. Did the U.S. Army condone slave ownership? I don't know. However, it is known that his service in the U.S. Army included battles against people who supported slavery. Thus, Mr. Gearing's comment that Stuart "took up arms against his country to defend slavery" lacks credibility. Stuart joined the Virginia Infantry on May 10, 1861 because he didn't want to take up arms as a U.S. Army officer against his home state Virginia. Virginia had voted not to secede by a 2-1 margin on April 3, 1861 before Stuart resigned his U.S. Army Commission, and Virginia reversed course by voting to secede on May 23, 1861 after Stuart joined the Virginia Infantry. The Confederacy joined Virginia on June 8,1861. It is noteworthy that at the commencement of the Civil War, five northern States and the District of Columbia condoned slavery.

While Virginia participated in the resistance to integration after Brown v. Board of Education, Fairfax County was the first county in Virginia to integrate its schools. The process was delayed by the Dillon Rule; Fairfax County could not integrate its schools until permitted to do so by enacted state law. In those days, local school boards were appointed, not elected. During that era, when the Arlington County School Board attempted to integrate its schools in defiance of Virginia law, the state rejected its integration plans and fired the school board.

Mr. Gearing attempts to make a distinction between members of the Confederacy like Generals Stuart and Lee and Presidents including Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, all of whom owned slaves, although Stuart acquired his slaves as a young man including by inheritance and freed them well prior to the onset of the Civil War and when he was 26 years old. I see no such distinction. If the issue is slavery, the fact that someone ascended to the Presidency doesn't insulate them from the same criticisms lodged against other slave owners.

The issue concerning the renaming of J.E.B. Stuart High School is less about the person and more about the failure of the FCSB to follow the regulation it enacted to set forth the procedure for doing so, regulation no. 8170.7. I do not write to condone Jeb Stuart's affiliation with the Confederacy. I merely write to set the factual record straight, as best can be done.

H. Jay Spiegel

Mount Vernon