After last August’s violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville lent fuel to the impetus to remove Confederate statues, a host of individuals — from white nationalists to President Donald Trump — warned of a looming slippery slope.
“This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder: Is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” Trump said.
Is Richmond Public Schools about to stumble up that hill, and tumble down that slope, in the aftermath of its decision to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School, named for the Confederate cavalry commander?
Members of the Richmond School Board have raised the possibility of name changes at schools not named after Confederates, including George Mason Elementary School and Thomas Jefferson High School.
Even as the school district fields suggestions for a new name for Stuart Elementary, its administration plans a year of research and parameter-setting on the names of its other buildings. It’s a process that could also affect existing high schools named after slave owners George Wythe and John Marshall, and who knows where else.
“It’s a much bigger discussion and we have to receive the information, the research about different schools, so that the board can have a discussion as far as next steps,” said board Chairwoman Dawn Page.
Superintendent Jason Kamras said Thursday that his administration will conduct this research “so we have a complete understanding of all our names” before sharing its findings with the board and gathering community input.
“I think we have to have that conversation with the community,” he said. “Obviously, these are really important decisions and we need to hear from everybody and get all different perspectives.”
Conversations about our history, and whom we choose to honor, are a good thing.
But can Jefferson Davis be easily conflated with Thomas Jefferson?
Davis left us with the Lost Cause ideology. Jefferson bequeathed us the Declaration of Independence, with its lofty vision of equality. That he fell far short of those truths is evident, but he provided us with a blueprint for the American ideal.
“I do think there is some distinction there,” Kamras said. “The contributions of individual people like Thomas Jefferson — and we can throw in George Wythe while we’re at it — were very important to this country. At the same time, they were slave owners. We need to be honest about that.”
A school name discussion, he said, should shed light on such questions as “who do we honor, what do we honor, and why?”
The sound you hear is not a rebel yell, but a collective “Aha! I told you so!” from the slippery-slope doomsayers.
The Richmond school district needs to be careful about this, lest they not play into the hands of Confederate apologists who would use RPS as Exhibit A in why no statue should be removed, no school or highway renamed.
We can’t allow that to happen. The road to truth and reconciliation already has too many false equivalency detours.
Or as Edward Ayers, a historian and emeritus president at the University of Richmond, succinctly explained: “Despite their undeniable implication in slavery, Thomas Jefferson and George Mason helped build the nation. They did not try to dismantle it.”
Annette Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a professor at Harvard Law School, was expansive in dissecting this false narrative during an interview last August on NPR, shortly after the Charlottesville rally by white supremacists, neo-Confederates, Klansmen and neo-Nazis protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a city park.
“Obviously, their owning slaves, you know, is not something that we can admire — something we abhor. But the problem with the leaders of the Confederacy is not just that they own slaves. It’s that they rebelled against the United States of America and did so in service of maintaining the system of slavery.
“The founding generation — and we can fault them for the hypocrisy — many of them were of the mind that slavery was an evil that would in fact be destroyed or should end. They didn’t do very much to further that along, but at least they professed that. By the time we get to the Confederacy, many of the people — certainly, the founding documents of the Confederacy — proclaimed that African slavery was natural. So we’re dealing with two separate types of people.”
In Richmond, at least, J.E.B. Stuart found few people actively defending his name on a school that is populated almost entirely by African-American students. Attendance at public hearings has been sparse.
“We’ve certainly gotten a number of recommendations on our website and folks have sent some stuff in, but it’s been almost entirely positive” with the focus on what the new name should be, Kamras said.
I’m not a fan of whataboutisms. I’d like to think RPS board members and staff can multitask. But frankly, I suspect many folks out there want laser focus on securing a replacement for the Mason building as planned, and less attention on whether to rename it.
It’s unclear that the community is clamoring for a discussion on renaming other schools. For them, a new name on a crummy building is so much lipstick on a pig.
“We have much bigger issues,” Page said. “So we have to prioritize what we will be addressing. Because student achievement will be our No. 1 priority.”
Kamras is not blind to the fact that renaming Teejay, as it has long and affectionately been known, would be a different matter than dispensing with J.E.B. Stuart.
“I imagine there would be more dissent on that,” he said.
It’s not just the distinction between a former U.S. president and a Confederate general; it’s the difference in degrees of loyalty to an elementary school and a high school. There are graduates who still grouse about the loss of John F. Kennedy High, which opened in 1968. Jefferson dates back to 1931 and, unlike Kennedy, has a sizable number of white alumni. Not that I’ve heard black TJ graduates spoiling for a name change.
We shouldn’t shy away from difficult questions. But we shouldn’t go looking for trouble either, especially in service of a losing cause. Purging the public landscape of Confederates is one thing; removing the Founding Fathers is something else altogether.
Some battles are best left unfought. Providing ammo to our opponents is never smart. The next step by RPS should be away from the slippery slope.