Af­ter J.E.B. Stu­art, it’s Wash­ing­ton-Lee’s turn

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS -

As a teenager in Ar­ling­ton County, I at­tended H-B Wood­lawn for my classes but played base­ball and bas­ket­ball for Wash­ing­ton-Lee High School. I have great mem­o­ries of play­ing for the Gen­er­als, in­clud­ing our base­ball team’s dis­trict cham­pi­onship in 1990. Yet I think it’s time to change the school’s name to the Wash­ing­ton High School Gen­er­als — partly be­cause Gen. Robert E. Lee, for whom the school is co-named, led the Con­fed­er­ate Army against the Union.

We should also re­name the school be­cause of the his­toric con­text in 1925 when the school board named and opened Wash­ing­ton-Lee.

Wash­ing­ton-Lee’s web­site notes that the school was named for Wash­ing­ton and Lee Uni­ver­sity and that Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton helped en­dow the uni­ver­sity while Lee later served ad­mirably as its pres­i­dent. But this association does not make Lee the equal of Wash­ing­ton.

Lee’s defin­ing act was to fight against our coun­try and for slav­ery. Wash­ing­ton’s defin­ing acts were to fight for our coun­try and to help found a na­tion rooted in free­dom and equal­ity. To be sure, Wash­ing­ton owned slaves, and it took time for our na­tion to more fully re­al­ize the Founders’ vi­sion. Yet the ideals for which Wash­ing­ton fought were com­mend­able; those for which Lee fought were not. Leav­ing Lee’s name in a place of honor dis­torts our his­tory and in­flu­ences us to ra­tio­nal­ize him as sim­ply a great gen­eral, dis­con­nected from the in­sti­tu­tion he de­fended.

Nam­ing a school for Lee was con­sis­tent with white-su­prem­a­cist views preva­lent in Ar­ling­ton in 1925. Eric Foner, per­haps the lead­ing his­to­rian on Re­con­struc­tion, the pe­riod fol­low­ing the Civil War, wrote re­cently in the New York Times that “the ad­vent of mul­tira­cial democ­racy in the South in­spired a wave of ter­ror­ist op­po­si­tion by the Ku Klux Klan and kin­dred groups, an­tecedents of the Klans­men and neo-Nazis who marched in Char­lottesville . . . . The great waves of Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ment building took place in the 1890s, as the Con­fed­er­acy was com­ing to be ide­al­ized as the so-called Lost Cause and the Jim Crow sys­tem was be­ing fas­tened upon the South, and in the 1920s, the height of black dis­en­fran­chise­ment, seg­re­ga­tion and lynch­ing.”

In­deed, in the year Wash­ing­ton-Lee opened, Vir­ginia op­er­ated racially seg­re­gated schools, Ar­ling­ton’s school board named a sec­ond school for Lee, and the Klan was prom­i­nent in Ar­ling­ton.

“Led by the great ti­tan of north­ern Vir­ginia in a fiery red robe . . . with a high flam­ing cross, the largest pa­rade ever staged by the Ku Klux Klan in Ar­ling­ton county was wit­nessed by hun­dreds of cit­i­zens who lined the streets last night,” The Post re­ported on May 7, 1925. “With flam­ing torches and fire­works, nearly 2,000 pa­raders . . . drove through Ross­lyn, Cher­ry­dale, Claren­don, Ball­ston, Del Ray.”

“Much ac­tiv­ity is no­tice­able in Ar­ling­ton County among branches of the Ku Klux Klan, men, women and boys,” The Post re­ported on Aug. 7 about prepa­ra­tions for a march in Wash­ing­ton the next day that would at­tract be­tween 30,000 and 35,000 Klan mem­bers. “Lat­est re­ports have it that the county will have in line more than 1,000 in the pa­rade.”

“More than 1,000 cit­i­zens of Ar­ling­ton last night on the hills of Fort Myer Heights at­tended the open air nat­u­ral­iza­tion of the Ku Klux Klan held un­der the aus­pices of the Ball­ston klan No. 6,” The Post re­ported on Oct. 9. “A class of 20 was taken into the or­ga­ni­za­tion in the light of a flam­ing cross.”

Our views have changed. In the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights move­ment ended le­gal­ized racial seg­re­ga­tion. The move­ment in­cluded brave men, women and stu­dents from Ar­ling­ton who worked to in­te­grate Vir­ginia’s pub­lic schools and es­tab­lish the in­clu­sive com­mu­nity we en­joy to­day. Yet Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues and pub­lic fa­cil­i­ties named for Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers have re­mained as a ves­tige of the Jim Crow era. It’s time to re­move them, too, and to re­mem­ber them in pub­lic ex­hibits such as one that ought to be es­tab­lished in a re­named high school. These new mon­u­ments would show where we were, how far we’ve come and how far we have to go to achieve the true mean­ing of the coun­try Wash­ing­ton helped found.

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