The former capital of the Confederacy no longer has a school named for a Confederate leader. Instead, it has a school named for the United States’ first black president.
The Richmond School Board voted 6-1 Monday night to rename J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School, the city’s lone Confederate-named school, to Barack Obama Elementary School, a move that comes as other city leaders debate what to do with Richmond’s Confederate monuments in the wake of the deadly Charlottesville rally last August.
“It would be pretty awesome to have an elementary school in Richmond named after Barack Obama,” said Liz Doerr, of the 1st District.
Kenya Gibson, the School Board’s representative for the 3rd District, where the school is located, was the lone vote against the renaming. Gibson unsuccessfully pushed for the vote to be delayed, upset with the lack of local names included in the administration’s recommendation.
“This is Richmond and we are about history and we have so many great local stories to tell,” Gibson said. “Our local stories are so important to cherish.”
Jonathan Young, who represents the 4th District, was not at Monday’s meeting, but said he would have voted against changing the name.
“Prayerfully we are done renaming buildings and can instead start renovating them,” Young said before the vote.
RPS is not the first school system to recognize Obama with a school name.
School officials in New Haven, Conn., announced last week that a new elementary school would be named after the 44th president. An elementary school in Upper Marlboro, Md., is already named after him.
Richmond also isn’t the first school division to rename a Confederate-named school for Obama.
In Mississippi, the Jackson Public Schools Board of Trustees voted in October to rename a school named after Jefferson Davis to instead honor Obama.
The Richmond School Board declared its intent to rename the school — which has a student population of more than 90 percent black students — in April, jump-starting a process that included five public input sessions and an online suggestion portal organized by a renaming team that included J.E.B. Stuart students, teachers and administrators.
The idea of renaming the school met little pushback from the Richmond schools community, members of which suggested renaming the school at Fendall Avenue and Crawford Street after a local historical figure or the neighborhood.
The Richmond Public Schools administration had students at the school vote for their top three choices from seven finalists given to them from the renaming team. The finalists were:
- Northside Elementary for the location of the school.
- Wishtree Elementary for the children’s book that celebrates different cultures in a diverse neighborhood.
- Oliver Hill Elementary for the local civil rights attorney who helped end the idea of “separate but equal.”
- Barbara Johns Elementary for the civil rights leader who led a student strike at her Farmville high school.
- Albert Norrell Elementary for the longtime Richmond educator.
- Henry Marsh Elementary for the first black mayor of Richmond.
- Barack Obama Elementary for the first black U.S. president.
Northside was the leading vote-getter among students, who cast their ballots June 12, with 190 votes, while Obama got 166 votes and Wishtree earned 127 endorsements.
The administration recommended that the School Board rename it after Obama, and the School Board, as it has consistently done since the new administration took over in February, approved the recommendation.
“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,” Superintendent Jason Kamras said after the meeting. “A lot of our kids, and our kids at J.E.B. Stuart, see themselves in Barack Obama.”
Kamras advised the 2008 Obama presidential campaign on education issues. Obama, a Democrat who had represented Illinois in the U.S. Senate, served as president from 2009 to 2017.
The RPS administration estimated that it will cost $26,000 to rename the school.
The $26,000 cost involves the following: $2,500 for a wooden sign at the front of the school; $2,500 for a new marquee; $4,000 for a bronze plaque; $10,000 for the etched stone facade on the school; $2,000 for rubber mats; $2,000 for stationery, envelopes and business cards, plus $500 for other office supplies; $2,000 for T-shirts with the new name for students and staff; and $500 for a banner.
Monday night’s vote concludes a half-year of consistent debate in the Richmond region surrounding Confederate school names.
The Petersburg School Board unanimously voted in early February to change the names of A.P. Hill, Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart elementary schools to Cool Spring Elementary, Lakemont Elementary and Pleasants Lane Elementary school, respectively. The school system received $20,500 in donations to fund the renaming.
In Hanover County, the School Board voted in April to keep the names of Lee-Davis High School (Confederates) and Stonewall Jackson Middle School (Rebels) in what was the most contentious of the three localities’ processes.
Since the vote, advocates for changing the name have continued to attend Hanover School Board meetings, pushing the appointed board to reconsider its 5-2 vote.
Across the U.S., there are 100 schools named for prominent Confederates, according to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Virginia is home to 15 of the 100 Confederate-named schools, according to the SPLC study, the second-most in the U.S. behind only Texas (36). The state does have the most total Confederate symbols (242), a number good for 14 percent of the country’s symbols.
Of the 100 schools, about 1 in 3 were built or dedicated from 1950 to 1970 — the time of the civil rights movement.
J.E.B. Stuart in Richmond, however, opened in September 1922 in response to a growing North Side population and was named for the Confederate cavalry leader. It cost $109,932 to build, according to a Richmond Public Schools history book, which is equivalent to $1.7 million in today’s dollars.
An effort to rename the school in 2003 didn’t get off the ground, as five board members killed a proposal from the school’s representative to start the process. Carol Wolf, who brought up the issue in 2003, was at Monday night’s meeting.
“I am disappointed that we did not honor a local hero,” Wolf said after the vote. “And if we are honoring the Obamas, I would have preferred naming the school after Michelle [Obama] who was very active in this nation’s schools.”
Larry Olanrewaju, the board chairman at the time who voted against starting the process, said in late March that renaming the school would have distracted the board from its work.
“I did not vote not to rename the school, I voted not to continue the conversation at that time,” Olanrewaju said. “The only reason that would have happened is because there were other things we were dealing with at that time and that wasn’t the appropriate time to take on that issue.”
Like the city with Confederate monuments, the School Board took on the decision of what to do with its Confederate symbol.
Mayor Levar Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission, a 10-person group of academics, historians, and members of the city council and the community, was charged with recommending how the city could “add context” to the statues lining Monument Avenue.
After August’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Stoney, who supported the School Board’s effort to rename J.E.B. Stuart, expanded the commission’s charge to include the consideration of removal or relocation of the statues.
The commission is expected to make its report by July 2.