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OPINION: It’s Past Time That We Changed the Names of Schools Honoring Confederate Leaders

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Let me state three truths that should not even be debatable in 2018.  

First, slavery was monstrous.  It treated some humans as animals — mere property that could be bought, sold, tortured and killed with no recourse because they had no rights.  There have been few institutions more evil in all of human history. 
Second, recognizing this fact and calling any denial of it a flat-out lie is not by any stretch trying to "erase," "deny" or "change" history.  An honest recognition of evil, however belated, requires decent people to cease honoring whatever promoted that evil.  

Third, nothing says a community must retain forever the original name of any building, road, bridge or structure of any kind. If you find out that the "hero" you honored by putting his name on a structure was instrumental in advancing or defending evil, it is meet, right and salutary to stop honoring him by changing that structure's name.  

The members of the Richmond School Board have a chance to give their students and other constituents this lesson in logic, empathy and common decency by changing the name of J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School, named for a Confederate war hero.  This will doubtless require them to demonstrate courage and calm moral fortitude in the face of vehement denunciation of the change as an attempt to "erase the past" and deny the courageous Stuart and the Confederacy their due.  

And there will, of course, be those who suggest that the School Board has better and more important things to do.  Really?  More important than ending the daily lesson to black and white children who attend the school that treating some humans as animals for one's own profit is not really all that bad a thing if their skin happens to be black? 

Believe me, I know.  I was a neophyte School Board member back in 2002 when some parents from J.E.B. Stuart approached me and asked for my help to change the name of the school. At the time, Stuart was the only accredited school in the 3rd District, and I thought it would be a simple matter not only to make my constituents happy but to herald the new millennium in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy and the birthplace of Massive Resistance.  

Boy, was I ever wrong.  Allow me to explain by recalling a chance encounter I had in the middle of a grocery store with NFL Hall of Famer Willie Lanier — Kansas City Chiefs' MVP linebacker and a graduate of Maggie Walker High School. 

Lanier bounded up to me and said he wanted "to shake the hand of the woman who had stood up to the Confederacy and got the name of J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School changed." 

I shook his hand, thanked him and explained that it turned out that I was the only board member who voted to open the process to change the school's name. 

"The only?" 

"Yup, the only.  The vote wasn't even close: 5 to 1 with three abstentions — Profiles in cowardice."   

"Who were the five?" I ticked off the names, while he shook his head sadly.

As we parted, he told me to hold my "head high and walk tall — you were trying to do the right thing. ... Only in Richmond, Virginia, could you have a School Board comprised of a majority of black people vote to keep the school named after a Confederate.  Only in Richmond."

Indeed. The experience taught me plenty about the black and white communities of Richmond. I was personally attacked in radio advertisements paid for by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Astoundingly, this group — named for people who had seceded from the union — questioned my patriotism.  

I received two death threats.  When I shared this information with Iris Page, then principal at J.E.B. Stuart, and with my friend and mentor, the late Oliver W. Hill, one of the lawyers who successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court, both advised that I not report the threats since that would, no doubt, inspire copycat crazies.

Sixteen years later, the crazies are still out there.  But the truth is clearer and more compelling than ever.  There is no excuse for continuing to honor Confederate leaders. Much less, should we force black and white children and their parents to endorse such honor by day after day, year after year, walking into a school bearing the names of men who devoted their lives to defending the right to treat black people as animals. 

Per the district's policy, two public meetings must be held in a month to allow the community to weigh in on the name change. However, it will ultimately be up to the School Board to make a decision on a new name for the school.

We are late to this game, folks.  When school systems all across the country — from Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, California and all parts in between – have mustered the courage to change the names of schools honoring Confederate leaders, it is way past time that we do the same. 

Carol A.O. Wolf is a former newspaper reporter who served on the Richmond School Board from 2002 to 2008. She writes regularly about the Richmond Public Schools at saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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