Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Lessons From History

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Lessons From History

On July 27, 2017, the Fairfax County School Board is scheduled to take a vote on whether to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School. This will be a momentous decision but not a difficult one. The vote should be a resounding "no." "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." — George Santayana (1863 - 1952). Changing the name will not change history but will move us one step closer to forgetting it. The history of slavery in the United States must never be forgotten, lest it be revisited.

J.E.B. Stuart was a graduate of West Point (1854) who served in the U.S. military before joining the Confederacy and becoming a Confederate general. General Stuart had his headquarters on Munson Hill, a site encompassing the school grounds, one of the reasons the school was named for him in 1958 (at the same meeting James Madison High School was named).

The following U.S. Presidents owned slaves: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant. Of those Presidents, the following also served as military Generals: Washington, Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Johnson, and Grant. In Fairfax County, at least two high schools are named after Presidential slave owners: Jefferson and Madison. Lee High School is another one named after a Confederate general, Robert E. Lee. This makes me wonder: does ascendancy to the Presidency immunize a person from having their name removed from public buildings, roads, bridges, etc. for being a slave owner? I would think not. The focus should remain on the repugnance of slavery, not the title of a person who owned slaves. Who is advocating re-naming the George Washington Memorial Parkway?

While I have heard rumblings that Lee High School will be next on the name chopping block, I have heard no such banter concerning James Madison High School and Thomas Jefferson High School. If J.E.B. Stuart has his name removed because he was a Confederate general who supported ownership of slaves, all people regardless of their highest title in life should suffer the same fate.

In an era of tight budgets, the expense of changing the name would be unconscionable to shoulder for our county. A School Board document I read estimates the cost at close to $700,000. Other reports cite a figure closer to $1 million. For what? To erase the name of a person whose history can be used as a teaching moment to ensure that the sordid history of slavery is never revisited? Multiply these figures by four since renaming Stuart will set the precedent for renaming the other three.

And what about the thousands of alumni of J.E.B. Stuart High School who will have the name of the high school on their diplomas erased? I have many friends who to this day bemoan the closure of Fort Hunt High School and the fact that they are graduates of a high school that no longer exists. It is little different for the high school to no longer exist or for it to exist under a different name. The feelings of those proud graduates must be taken into account.

In May 2016, the School Board conducted a survey within the adjacent community to determine community views on this very issue. The survey elicited an astounding 3,414 responses of which 56 percent opposed renaming the school, 35 percent supported the renaming, and 8 percent stated that they had no opinion. Frankly, that should have been the end of it.

In light of fiscal reasons, local community opposition and the principle that sordid historical aspects of the United States should not be swept under the rug in the name of political correctness, the School Board should oppose renaming J.E.B. Stuart High School.

H. Jay Spiegel

Mount Vernon