The school board in Richmond, Virginia, announced this week that the city’s only school named after a Confederate general will change its name to Barack Obama Elementary. The decision to honor the first black president over J.E.B. Stuart—whom the school was named after when it opened in 1922—is significant given that Richmond is the former capital of the Confederacy. It’s also part of a larger, national push to get rid of Confederate school names.
In the past few years, white supremacist violence connected to Confederate symbols has prompted many Americans to call for the removal of Confederate monuments and the renaming of schools honoring Confederate leaders. At least 37 such schools have announced name changes since the June 2015 murder of nine black congregants at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The deadly white supremacist riot in Charlottesville in August 2017 has also prompted change. Since then, seven schools in Virginia have adopted new names.
Even so, there are still 100 public schools in the U.S. named for Confederate icons like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and “Stonewall” Jackson, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center released on June 4, 2018. Texas has the most with 36 schools, and Virginia is second with 15. Yet these schools aren’t just located in the 11 Confederate states that seceded in the 1860s. You can also find them in Oklahoma, Washington state and West Virginia—a state that specifically split from Virginia in order to fight for the Union.
Why do schools have these names in the first place? Some received their Confederate names between 1900 and the 1920s, when Jim Crow laws segregated the south and Confederate monument construction in the country peaked. Others came much later. Of the 100 schools that retain Confederate names, at least 32 were built or dedicated between 1950 and 1970 amid white backlash to Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement.
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In fact, a lot of “schools, parks and streets were named for Confederate icons during the era of white resistance to equality,” writes the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC, in its new report. After Brown v. Board declared in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional, some schools in the south as well as in non-Confederate states like Vermont, Massachusetts and California began to embrace Confederacy-related mascots and iconography. In 1956, Georgia incorporated the Confederate battle flag into its state flag at the same time that white communities were fighting school integration. It flew over all Georgia public schools until 2001.
Efforts to shed Confederate names, mascots and images in schools have mirrored demands to take down Confederate monuments, which received increased media attention after the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville. SPLC reports that since the Charleston massacre in 2015, the U.S. has removed 110 Confederate symbols.
However, SPLC still counts 1,728 monuments, schools, state holidays and other public symbols throughout the United States that honor the Confederacy. Public demand to remove these commemorations will likely continue as white supremacists prepare to mark the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville riot by rallying in Washington, D.C. on August 12, 2018.