(Updated at 10:15 a.m.) Washington-Lee High School will soon be known as “Washington-Liberty High School” instead, now that officials have finally wrapped up the contentious process of stripping Robert E. Lee’s name from the building.
The Arlington School Board voted unanimously on the new moniker for W-L during a lengthy meeting last night (Thursday), about seven months after deciding to rename the school. Washington-Lee has borne the name of the Confederate general ever since it opened back in 1925, but the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville in 2017 convinced school leaders to reevaluate W-L’s name.
“There are those that worry that by changing the name of our high school, we will lose our history,” said School Board member Monique O’Grady. “Rest assured, the history of Robert E. Lee will not be forgotten in Arlington Public Schools. It will continue to be part of our curriculum, and thus a topic for students to explore, debate, learn and, yes, even be tested on. As for General Lee, amid the smoldering scars of the Civil War, he urged us to move forward and refrain from erecting symbols that might cause division. With our vote today, we do just that.”
A committee convened to suggest new names for the school recommended “Washington-Loving” as its first choice for the Board, in reference to Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple who successfully challenged the state’s ban on interracial marriage before the Supreme Court.
But a narrow, 3-2 majority on the Board rejected that name in favor of the “Liberty” option, arguing that the moniker was better suited as to match the school system’s aspirations toward equality. O’Grady and Board member Nancy Van Doren cast the dissenting votes.
“I hope we can name something for Richard and Mildred Loving going forward,” said Board member Barbara Kanninen, who chaired the Board when the renaming effort first launched in earnest last year. “But the concept of liberty is woven throughout our history, and I find that there’s a clear, logical and organic story and narrative that we can build from that name… I don’t think there’s a point in our American history where liberty was not central to the discussions of our time.”
The new names mirrors the Fairfax County’s School Board to rename a high school bearing another Confederate general’s name “Justice,” opting for an abstract concept over drawing a name from history. Loving supporters like Van Doren believe the name could’ve represented “the progress America has made since the Revolution,” but found “Liberty” to be a fine second choice, considering that the renaming committee recommended it as an alternative option.
Some on the renaming committee also proposed substituting in William Lee, George Washington’s enslaved manservant, to leave the name mostly unchanged. That option was even backed by some prominent W-L alumni and former teachers at the school, who made a late push to see it considered instead.
But O’Grady argued that naming the school after a former slave could send the wrong message and run “counter to our [Arlington Public Schools] values.”
“He suffered from a life fraught from opportunity gaps,” O’Grady said. “We will never know the legacy William Lee would’ve left if not for the institutional bias that existed at that time — exactly what we hope doesn’t happen in our school system.”
Of course, support for the name change was far from unanimous. Many of the school’s older alumni fiercely opposed the name change, and have spent the last few months working to block the move — some even backed a legal challenge by three current W-L students, but a judge struck that lawsuit down on procedural grounds in December.
Tempers also flared on the renaming committee itself, with three members ultimately resigning in protest and claiming they were inappropriately barred from debating the possibility of leaving the name the same. And through the entire process, alumni have claimed that the Board misled the community about how they planned to conduct the change.
“You should all be ashamed of yourselves,” said Dean Fleming, vice president of the W-L Alumni Association and a vehement name change opponent. “There’s a much better way to do this.”
But the Board has long vigorously defended its methods, and Kanninen took time to once again stress that members followed “a proper procedure and process.”
School officials hope to have the name change fully in place by the time the 2019-2020 school year kicks off, and W-L staffers say they’ve already been hard at work identifying which signage and uniforms will need to change now that the new name is ready.
But with the final vote finally cast, the school system will now embark on the task of smoothing over hurt feelings and preparing the community for the switch. Board Chair Reid Goldstein assured all in attendance that the switch is “not going to change your diploma, it’s not going to change your education, it’s not going to change you as good citizens or representatives of Arlington Public Schools and the high school you went to,” but many feel the process of reconciliation will be a tricky one.
“You should make use of this opportunity to educate W-L students, parents and alumni,” Thornton Thomas, a freshman at W-L who served on the renaming committee, told the Board. “And if you do that, you might find people are much more accepting of the decision that you make.”
Board members are well aware of the challenges they’ll face on that front, and they’re hoping that even name change opponents can pitch in to start doing a little healing.
“There has been a great deal of emotion on all sides around this renaming,” Van Doren said. “It’s time to come together and remember this is still a great community, a great school with great students and great alumni… Let’s come together now and move forward together.”