A teachable moment on J.E.B. Stuart High School
The proposal to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School presents the Fairfax County School Board, in fact the entire community and nation, with a teachable moment.
The school board adopted Regulation 8170.7 requiring “sufficient support” and “some compelling need” for a school name change. “Sufficient support” is not defined, nor is “compelling need,” but it is clear, through surveys, that the majority of the Stuart community and the student body do not support a name change. Equally important, the J.E.B. Stuart High School’s Parent Teacher Student Association, service clubs and booster clubs have not stepped forward to support a change.
The most important fact is that no “compelling need” has been demonstrated. Apparently, there are a few offended community members, but no one has suggested that the learning environment has been harmed because of the name of the school. Stuart’s enrollment is about half Hispanic, 23 percent non-Hispanic white (including a strong Arab component), 14 percent Asian and 10 percent black (many of them from other countries), and for years the school’s diversity and international flavor have been celebrated with its challenging International Baccalaureate curriculum.
Changing the name of this high school has been estimated to cost between $750,000 and $1 million. I don’t think spending that money on changing the name is a good use of funds when budget difficulties have resulted in students being slapped with activity fees, teaching positions being eliminated and class sizes growing ever larger. It also would send an unwelcome message to the Virginia General Assembly that Fairfax County is more interested in spending money for name changes than for student development.
Then there is the matter of J.E.B. Stuart himself. There is no historical research and no posthumous war crime declaration that would lead anyone to find a compelling reason to change the name of the school. James Ewell Brown Stuart was a Virginian and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy who became a highly regarded cavalry officer and tactician. Before the Civil War, he was part of an Army effort to stop the fighting in “Bleeding Kansas” and defended abolitionist settlers warring with their pro-slavery opponents. His role was celebrated in the movie “Santa Fe Trail,” in which he was portrayed by Errol Flynn.
Stuart inherited two slaves but freed them in 1859. He opposed secession, but he sided with his native state when war broke out, as did many other Virginia officers. He was 31 and a Confederate general when he died from wounds suffered in battle. His military prowess still is widely acclaimed. A saber hook he devloped (U.S. patent No. 25,684 A) was used by armies across the globe. And so renowned was his military genius, even internationally, that British M3 and M5 tanks used in World War II were nicknamed “Stuart tanks” in his honor.
Stuart is part of our complicated past. His role is something that can be discussed rationally and understood in the context of real history, not presumptions projected on him by people living 150 years later.
In considering the renaming of its schools, the Fairfax County School Board must adhere to its stated criteria. If it ignores the “compelling need” criterion, the school board would create division and mistrust rather than unity and support. Some have suggested that it might as well be called “Hitler High.” Such hyperbole has added too much emotion, yielded too few facts and intimidated students.
Forcing a change the majority of the community has not embraced would create unwelcome precedents. Removing Stuart’s name would most certainly lead to removing the names of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Confederate Col. John Mosby from their respective schools. Where would it end?
Not caving in to the views of a few can serve as a model to handle controversies that are breaking out throughout the South over statues, memorials, parks and institutions named for Confederate leaders. Let’s take a lead from other educational institutions with complex legacies, such as Princeton and the University of Virginia.
Rather than ignore history, let this be a moment when we teach students, the community and the nation that the life and history of a bygone leader and our complex state and county histories needn’t be reduced to crass politics and sound bites and can be tools to promote reconciliation, education and, most important, love of our unique country and each other.
The writer, a Republican, represented J.E.B. Stuart High School for 14 years while serving on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and represented Virginia’s 11th Congressional District in the House from 1995 to 2008. Two of his children attended J.E.B. Stuart High School.
A J.E.B. Stuart statue in Richmond.