Arlington, VA

(Updated at 11:15 a.m.) Arlington’s School Board will name a new Cherrydale middle school after civil rights activist Dorothy Hamm, opting against including any reference to the historic Stratford School on the new building’s site.

Following the Board’s unanimous vote yesterday (Thursday), the school will open next year as “Dorothy Hamm Middle School.” It’s set to be located at 4100 Vacation Lane, the former home of the H-B Woodlawn and Stratford programs, and should hold about 1,000 students.

Though the process of naming the building hasn’t drawn quite as much controversy as the renaming of Washington-Lee High School, the debate has nonetheless raised familiar questions about how the county grapples with its history. The “Stratford” name presented a particularly thorny option for the Board to consider, as it has a bit of a complex legacy.

Many people around the community hoped to see the Stratford name stay attached to the new school, considering its significance in the civil rights movement in Virginia. The original Stratford Junior High School (which remains on the site) was the first school in the state to admit black students following the momentous Brown v. Board of Education decision, marking the beginning of the end of Virginia’s policy of “massive resistance” to desegregation.

Yet the original school was named after Stratford Hall, the childhood plantation home of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, making some uncomfortable with the name’s connection to Lee’s legacy of defending slavery. After all, the Board voted just a few months ago to strip Lee’s name from W-L over similar concerns.

Accordingly, Hamm emerged as an alternative choice, given her role in fighting to integrate Stratford. Her children attended the school soon after its desegregation, and Hamm also supported a series of other court challenges to Jim Crow-era laws in Arlington.

“What I really love is that this was a story of the moms of Arlington, who heard from their children,” said School Board member Barbara Kanninen. “They wanted to know why they couldn’t attend this school. That’s why they stood up and fought. By naming this building after Dorothy Hamm, we’re honoring the fight, rather than the place. I think it’s going to be a terrific message that we’re sending to the students of that school, and I think that’s something to be excited about.”

But in ditching the Stratford name entirely, the Board cast aside the recommendation of an advisory committee convened to offer recommendations for the school’s moniker. The group suggested either naming the building simply “Stratford Middle School” or the lengthier “Dorothy Hamm Middle School at the Historic Stratford Building” to ensure a reference to the “Stratford” remained.

Board Vice Chair Tannia Talento proposed that the Board accept the latter option, but Kanninen made a motion to remove the “Historic Stratford Building” section of the name. That passed, but only on a narrow, 3-2 margin, with Talento and Board Chair Reid Golstein dissenting.

“I find it a bit incongruous that we all like the Dorothy Hamm name because we’re lauding the significant, dynamic and historic actions of Dorothy Hamm in the desegregation activity and, at the same time, setting aside the Stratford name, which is equally a part of the significant desegregation history here,” Goldstein said.

Dean Fleming, a friend of the Hamm family who has also been active in organizing opposition to the W-L name change, also told the Board that Hamm’s daughter, Carmela, is “not interested in having her mom’s name on school.” Dorothy Hamm herself passed away in 2004.

Instead, Fleming said her daughter suggested creating a “hall of honors” at Stratford to honor the family’s legacy, while preserving the original name of the building.

Yet Board member Nancy Van Doren argued that the school system has already sketched out an extensive plan for creating an “interpretative trail” and other memorials on the new school’s grounds to ensure that the full history of the Stratford building is available to students.

Though some historic preservation groups around the county have protested any removal of the Stratford name, Van Doren believes the new building will not lack for commemorations of its integration history.

“Those will all be up at the time the building opens,” Van Doren said. “And because it will all be physically there, on the site, I don’t think we need the ‘at the Historic Stratford School’ section of the name.”

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