May 30, 2024

The school board in Shenandoah County, Virginia, early Friday approved a proposal that will restore the names of Confederate military leaders to two public schools.

The measure, which passed 5-1, reverses a previous board’s decision in 2020 to change the names of schools that had been linked to Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Turner Ashby, three men who led the pro-slavery Southern states during the Civil War. 

Mountain View High School will go back to the name Stonewall Jackson High School. Honey Run Elementary School will go back to the name Ashby-Lee Elementary School.

The board stripped their names after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, fueling a national racial reckoning. The calls for racial justice and equity inspired some communities to remove Confederate symbolism and statues of Confederate generals.

But in Shenandoah County, the conservative group Coalition for Better Schools petitioned school officials to reinstate the names of Jackson, Lee and Ashby. “We believe that revisiting this decision is essential to honor our community’s heritage and respect the wishes of the majority,” the coalition wrote in an April 3 letter to the board, according to a copy posted online.

The board considered a similar motion in 2022, but it failed because of a tie vote.

Four years ago, a previous incarnation of the board moved to change the names in a 5-1 vote, according to minutes from a meeting held July 9, 2020. The minutes say that the goal of the resolution was “condemning racism and affirming the division’s commitment to an inclusive school environment for all.”

The current members said the 2020 board’s decision was made hastily and without appropriate community input. About 80 people spoke Thursday before the board’s vote — more than 50 of them against restoring the old names.

“I am a Black student, and if the names are restored, I would have to represent a man that fought for my ancestors to be slaves,” one student said in a direct appeal to the board members, later adding: “I think it is unfair to me that restoring the names is up for discussion.”

In the last decade, Confederate iconography has provoked intense sociopolitical divides across the nation.

The statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson is removed from a park in Charlottesville in 2021.Ryan M. Kelly / AFP via Getty Images file

The anti-Black mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015 set off fierce debates about public displays of the Confederate flag and commemorations of the Confederacy. South Carolina officials voted to remove the Confederate flag from state Capitol grounds that year.

Two years later, hundreds of neo-Nazis and white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, for the deadly “Unite the Right” rally. They stormed the college town in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Lee from the city’s Market Street Park, formerly known as Lee Park.

In the wake of Floyd’s murder and massive protests against racism, the legacy of the Confederacy once again became a focal point in the national conversation. At least 160 public Confederate symbols were taken down or moved from public places in 2020, according to a tally from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“These racist symbols only serve to uphold revisionist history and the belief that white supremacy remains morally acceptable,” SPLC chief of staff Lecia Brooks said in a statement at the time. “This is why we believe that all symbols of white supremacy should be removed from public spaces.”

The vote in Shenandoah County comes as conservative groups across the U.S. increasingly push back against efforts to reckon with race in America in educational settings, including efforts to limit classroom discussion of racial identity, ban library books dealing with racial themes, and derail diversity plans.