The following Letter to the Editor was submitted by writer and Washington-Lee High School graduate Waleed Shahid, who has started an online petition to push for removing Robert E. Lee’s name from the school.
Activists are also expected to call for Lee’s name to be removed from W-L at tonight’s Arlington School Board meeting, in the wake of this past weekend’s events in Charlottesville, sources tell ARLnow.com.
When I was a student at Washington-Lee, I clearly remember being taught in history class that Robert E. Lee “did not fight for slavery; he fought for Virginia.” I didn’t make much of it until I left Virginia for college. Many of my classmates thought it was strange that I went to a school named after the leader of the Confederate Army and that there was a highway that ran through my hometown honoring Jefferson Davis. These were racist slave-owners who rebelled against the American government and Abraham Lincoln, they told me. I shrugged and didn’t make it much of it.
But over the past few years — and particularly over the past week — many Americans have been beginning a conversation about our nation’s living wounds. It’s clear that too many are ignorant of our country’s history. And this past week has shown that a small minority of white nationalists are increasingly comfortable with publicly stirring up the worst aspects in American society by pitting Americans against each other.
To these white nationalists, Robert E. Lee represents their deep commitment to racial hierarchy. When three of his slaves escaped, Lee whipped them and had their backs washed with stinging brine. Lee ordered his Confederate soldiers to respect white property, but declared that any black people they encountered — regardless of their previous ‘status’ — were to be seized and returned to the South to be sold into slavery. At the Battle of the Crater, Lee’s Army even killed black prisoners of war. This is the history we honor when we name our school after Robert E. Lee — and why white nationalists felt so threatened by the removal of his statue in Charlottesville.
We must understand the stakes too. Arlington Public Schools should not shy away from taking a clear stand on this issue. It’s up to our civic leaders and institutions to take steps toward reconciling and repairing our nation’s living wounds where we can make a difference. Washington-Lee High School should be renamed so that we can move toward creating a school, county and country that truly belongs to all who call it home. If the President of the United States is unwilling to provide the leadership our country needs, then we need to provide it ourselves.
America was founded upon a revolutionary promise: freedom and justice for all. But, the revolutionary promise of America has never been fulfilled. We, the people has never included all of us. The story of our nation has always been a struggle over who America belongs to: the chosen few, or all of us? This is what is at stake when we honor the leaders of the Confederacy. Which side of that struggle will we honor? Germans don’t honor Nazi soldiers; South Africans don’t honor those who held up Apartheid. But Americans still honor Robert E. Lee and countless other Confederates who raised up a new flag and started a rebellion against the United States of America. Why?
It’s time Arlington honor those who fought tirelessly to create an America for all of us. As an alum of Washington-Lee High School, I urge you to consider re-naming our school Washington-Douglass or Washington-Tubman High School. As a Muslim-American who grew up in Arlington, continuing to have my alma mater named after Robert E. Lee is like seeing a Confederate Flag being constantly waved in my face. It makes me sick to my stomach knowing that we are honoring a man who fought to shackle and chain other human beings.
In many ways, Washington-Lee is a microcosm of America. My alma mater — just like my country — is still working to perfect our experiment in constructing a vibrant multi-racial democracy. This past week has been a reminder that some still hope to thwart our collective project and take us back to darker times. But by committing to change the name of Washington-Lee High School, we can take concrete steps toward living up to our best traditions and creating a nation where we all feel like we belong and where “We, the People” includes all of us. This is our historic responsibility as Americans in this moment in our history.
ARLnow.com occasionally publishes thoughtful letters to the editor about issues of local interest. To submit a letter to the editor for consideration, please email it to [email protected]. Letters may be edited for content and brevity.