What’s in a Name in Arlington?

What’s in a Name in Arlington?

School Board considers renaming Arlington schools.

“No decisions have been made or will be made without extensive community input and discussion. This process will take time, but we are getting started.” — School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen

No policy has officially been established yet, no final decisions have been made, but the writing is on the wall for Washington-Lee High School. One week ago, a series of violent clashes in Charlottesville over a statue of Robert E. Lee ended with an alleged white supremacist driving his car into a protest and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Across the south, localities have been reexamining the role of the confederacy in local icons and names. At a School Board meeting on Aug. 17, School Board chair Barbara Kanninen announced that the board will be developing a naming guidelines system to reevaluate the names of all current and future schools. While Washington-Lee High School was not named specifically, it was clear speakers on both sides of the issue where the policy was targeted.

“All of us are extremely concerned and saddened by the violence that took place last weekend in Charlottesville,” said Kanninen. “This has been a tragedy for our community, our state, and our nation.”

Kanninen said the time had come to talk about the names of the schools and the messages they conveyed to the students in attendance.

“No decisions have been made or will be made without extensive community input and discussion,” said Kanninen. “This process will take time, but we are getting started.”

The feedback on the proposal started five minutes after it was announced with clear sides already established.

The majority of the speakers supported renaming Washington-Lee.

“The time has come to remove the name,” said Ryan Sims. “Lee was an avowed white supremacist who took up arms against the United States to preserve the institution of slavery. Veneration of confederate icons throughout the south ensured every citizen understood that racist state and local institutions remained committed to denying the basic rights of African Americans, often violently so. Lee remains a potent symbol of hate.”

For Mark Bealer from Indivisible Arlington, the name was antiquated and morally repugnant.

“It is hypocritical and shameful moral equivalence of those who fought for slavery and those who fought for independence,” said Bealer.

Nick Roy, the father of three graduates from Arlington Public Schools, compared Lee and other symbols of the confederacy to the swastika. Roy, whose father is from India, said the symbol is a 5,000-year-old emblem of love and peace, but that as much as he might like it, he can’t use it in his home because of its horrible associations in the west.

“Whatever we may attribute to Lee the man,” said Roy, “Lee the symbol has become associated with that same thing.”

But support for renaming the school was not universal. At the time of writing, a petition on getpetition.com to preserve the name Washington-Lee High School is 24 signatures shy of its 1,000 goal.

“Washington-Lee has been part of the lives of Arlington school children since the 1920s and has been one of the top high schools in the country throughout its existence,” reads the petition. “To change the name of the school now is not reflective of W-L spirit nor W-L pride. Our pride is in our school. And our school’s name was, currently is, and we hope will remain, Washington-Lee.”

At the School Board meeting, the discussion was book-ended with those supporting the current name. John Peck, an alumni, said the 92-year-history of the school cannot be separated from the name, pointing especially to a 1966 basketball championship with an integrated team.

Mila Albertson, a graduate of the glass of 1966 and president of the alumni association, opposed the renaming.

“The name Washington-Lee is exalted because of its graduates, not the men it’s named after,” said Albertson. “I’m being polite to those calling for renaming Washington-Lee when I say it is irrational. Do we change the name for Stratford because it was named after Lee’s birthplace? Do we ban the Virginia state flag because it reminds us the commonwealth protected slave owners? Do we rename Virginia and all confederate states? Do we rename Richmond because it was the capital of the rebellion? President [Abraham] Lincoln called for reconciliation … Can we not follow his magnanimous lead?”