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