Tuesday, December 22, 2015

History in the news: When should school buildings be renamed?

Photo of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, from the U.S. Military History Institute, published online by USA Today Network on 17 Dec. 2013.
Until two years ago, a Florida public high school was named after a Confederate general who later helped form and became first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.  Then in December 2013, Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville, FL, was given a new name.  The Forrest "Rebels" became the Westside High School Wolverines.

Image result for westside high school wolverines
Calls for similar actions have followed, and it seems that the velocity of these requests has increased after the June 2015 shootings of nine members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  My own county, Fairfax County, Virginia, in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, is facing a similar situation.  Just last week our school board amended its policy regarding when school facilities could be renamed.  Previously the policy dictated that name changes could occur only when the school building had a change in "purpose or function."  But it voted unanimously to expand the basis for school renaming to include "where some other compelling need exists."

The reason for the interest in amending an obscure school board policy may be that recent online petitions have asked the school board to change the name of schools named after J.E.B. Stuart (a Confederate general) and other Confederate leaders or opponents of school integration.

It is by no means clear yet what action our school board may or may not take regarding any of these petitions.  What is clear, though, is that this issue attracts a lot of attention, reflection, and emotion.

When we return from break our studies move ever closer to more modern historical eras and events.  It is always a good idea to find connections to the present during our consideration of the past.  We should be mindful, of course, that often times those connections will result in passionate debate and that we are responsible for ensuring that those debates are civil, informed, and respectful.

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