The last public building in Virginia’s capital with a Confederate name is getting a makeover. Thanks, Obama.
On June 18, the Richmond School District voted 6-1 to change the name of J.E.B Stuart Elementary to Barack Obama Elementary.
Why does that matter?
Stuart was a U.S. Army officer who switched sides to join the Confederacy during the Civil War and became one of the South’s top military strategists. Richmond school officials wanted to let go of inappropriately honoring a pro-slavery leader, and do so in a way that built bridges in the community.
“It’s incredibly powerful that in the capital of the Confederacy, where we had a school named for an individual who fought to maintain slavery, that now we’re renaming that school after the first black president,” Richmond Public School Superintendent Jason Kamras said. “A lot of our kids, and our kids at J.E.B. Stuart, see themselves in Barack Obama.”
The elementary school body is 95% African-American and a number of school leaders suggested swapping out Stuart’s name for Obama’s, echoing a similar move at a Mississippi elementary school in 2017.
The fight over replacing Confederate monuments has been divisive, but it doesn’t have to be.
The name change in Richmond was also partially a response to the infamous white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 in which one protester was killed and 19 others were injured during a contentious debate over a park named after the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Students were polled on how they would like to see the school renamed and school district officials discussed the issue before moving forward.
Even though the debate was mild, Obama himself might chuckle at the fact that he was only the student’s third favorite choice, losing out in a school wide poll to the more generic “Northside Elementary” (named after the school’s location) and “Wishtree Elementary” named after the popular children’s book celebrating cultural diversity.
At the end of the day, any of those names would be a preferable alternative, but there’s something wonderful about directly countering the Confederate legacy with one that tells a positive story about our nation’s evolution on race.
America continues to grapple with public ties to our history of racism and oppression. This is a great step forward.
The debate over our complicated racial history isn’t going away. We can’t ignore our past, and wins like this are simple ways to bridge the divide.
It’s time to move beyond honoring ideas and leaders who no longer reflect the values this nation holds dear.