MANASSAS, Va. (Reuters) - In the northern Virginia county where Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson earned his famous moniker, a battle has begun to remove his name from the local high school where it appears in large white letters on the red brick facade.
Inspired by last weekend’s race-fuelled violence in Charlottesville, a local official proposed renaming the school, extending the debate over Confederate monuments to institutions whose names honour the leaders of the pro-slavery Southern states in the U.S. Civil War.
“It’s time to recognise that these schools were named in error,” said Ryan Sawyers, who is chairman of the Prince William County school board and is also running for U.S. Congress next year as a Democrat. “It’s time to right that wrong.”
His proposal on Wednesday set off a firestorm of debate in the picturesque suburban county about 40 miles (65 km) southwest of Washington, D.C., and provided a taste of what likely awaits similar new efforts in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Kentucky.
“Despicable,” Corey Stewart, the Republican chairman of Prince William’s Board of County Supervisors and a 2018 U.S. Senate candidate, said of the idea of changing the name of Stonewall Jackson High School.
A strong supporter of President Donald Trump, Stewart ran unsuccessfully for governor this year largely on a platform of preserving Confederate monuments.
Trump has faced a storm of criticism over his remarks on last Saturday’s unrest in Charlottesville, where white nationalists rallied to protest the planned removal of a Confederate statue and a woman was killed when a car ploughed through counter-protesters. The president has blamed the violence on not just the rally organizers but also on the anti-racist activists who confronted them.
Trump has also sided with those who favour keeping Confederate monuments in place, saying they are beautiful and will be missed if removed. Opponents of such monuments view them as a festering symbol of racism since the Confederacy fought for the preservation of slavery. Supporters say they honour American history. Some of the monuments have become rallying points for white nationalists.
General Jackson, who led Confederate troops in several key victories, earned his nickname in July 1861 during one of two major battles fought near Manassas, when a fellow general is said to have shouted: “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!”
“He’s revered throughout Virginia and in Prince William County,” Stewart said. “To take his name off a school is really a slap in the face to an American hero.”
Stonewall Jackson High School, named in 1964 at the height of the civil rights era, is three miles (5 km) from Manassas battlefield. Its 2,400 students are 17 percent black, 19 percent white and more than half Hispanic.
Historians note that much like the installation of many Confederate statues, such school names were given decades after the Civil War ended in 1865, mostly as a response by local officials to growing calls for racial equality in the United States.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy group, said it was aware of about 100 U.S. schools and nearly 500 roads named after Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals. About half of the schools are in Virginia and Texas.
In Dallas, where at least four schools are named for Confederate figures, the school board president said this week he had added the issue to the agenda of an upcoming meeting.
“It’s very hard for me to come up with an answer to an African-American child, or any child, who asks, ‘Why is this school named in honour for someone who fought to keep my ancestors enslaved?’” said the president, Dan Micciche.
Sawyers, of the Prince William County school board, said the Charlottesville events were “the last straw” for him. An online fundraising campaign he started to avoid using taxpayer funds for a name change to Stonewall Jackson High School has raised about $2,000.
Two district teachers, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the controversy, criticized the idea of spending up to $750,000 on replacing signage, buying new sports uniforms and revamping facilities.
Parents on Sawyers’ Facebook page echoed that concern. But Cedric Lockhart, who has three children in the school system, contributed money.
“Having a school named after somebody who fought to enslave African-American families like mine – it just feels inappropriate in 2017,” he said in a phone interview.
Lockhart, who grew up in Prince William and attended another high school, said he always found the school’s name disturbing.
Mikayla Harshman, a 2014 graduate of Stonewall Jackson High, said she opposed changing the name.
“They’re erasing history,” said Harshman, 21, who is white and majoring in American history at Radford University. “I feel like taking something like that away is taking away an opportunity to learn.”
Confederate memorials are widespread in Virginia, which saw some of the deadliest Civil War battles. There is a cannon from the era at the entrance of the historic district of downtown Manassas, which seems plucked from the past with its small, quaint buildings.
Standing outside the local museum, Shiine Jackson, 32, a student at Northern Virginia Community College, said she supported changing the high school name.
“The name stands for the Confederacy,” said Jackson, who is black. “This is the South. As a minority, I’ve experienced a lot of racism in my life.”
(This version of the story corrects direction to “southwest,” not “east” in paragraph four)
Reporting and writing by Joseph Ax in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York, Colleen Jenkins in North Carolina and Fatima Bhojani in Manassas, Virginia; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Frances Kerry