News & Politics

School in Old Capital of the Confederacy Ditches Confederate Name in Favor of Barack Obama

Former U.S. President Barack Obama waves prior to delivering his speech during the 4th Congress of Indonesian Diaspora Network in Jakarta, Indonesia, Saturday, July 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

The South, it seems, shall never rise again. On Monday, the school board in Richmond, Va. gave a sort of cultural death knell to the Confederacy, renaming a school in the old Confederate capital. The school will lose the name of an old Confederate general and gain the name of America’s first black president. The decision came ten months after the left-wing smear group the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) warned of “turmoil and bloodshed” if schools retained the names of Confederate generals.

J.E.B. Stewart Elementary, started in the 1920s, was named after a famous Confederate general from Virginia who played a key role in the Battle of Gettysburg. The school’s student body is 95 percent African-American, and the students selected Barack Obama, Northside, and Wishtree as potential names.

“It would be pretty awesome to have an elementary school in Richmond named after Barack Obama,” said Liz Doerr, a school board member.

Kenya Gibson, the only school board member who did not vote to rename the school after Barack Obama, aimed to delay the vote, searching for local names to be considered. “This is Richmond and we are about history and we have so many great local stories to tell,” Gibson, who is African-American, said. “Our local stories are so important to cherish.”

Last August, following the white nationalist riots in Charlottesville, Va., the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) published a map of all the Confederate monuments across the United States, including military bases and elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools named after Confederate generals.

“More than 1,500 Confederate monuments stand in communities like Charlottesville with the potential to unleash more turmoil and bloodshed,” the SPLC announced. “It’s time to take them down” (emphasis original).

While the riots in Charlottesville did center around a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee — a noble man who accepted the Union’s ultimate victory with grace — other riots broke out across the country, with activists engaging in vandalism against Confederate monuments.

The SPLC’s decision to list and map schools at such a turbulent time seemed particularly ominous and unwise — especially given the fact that a similar SPLC “hate map” inspired a terrorist attack in Washington, D.C. in 2012.

In June, the SPLC announced that 110 Confederate symbols had been removed since last August. These included “47 monuments and four flags, and name changes for 37 schools, seven parks, three buildings and seven roads.” Thankfully, there have been no reports of protesters attacking elementary schools, middle schools, or high schools for their Confederate names, using the SPLC map.

According to this report, Virginia ranked second among the twenty-two states and the District of Columbia which had removed Confederate symbols. Texas (31), Virginia (14), Florida (9), and Tennessee (8) had removed the most monuments.

Ironically, the SPLC misidentified an elementary school in Kentucky that was named after a stone wall, marking it for protest on the false assumption it was named after Stonewall Jackson.

The renaming of J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School may be considered a moral victory — after all, the Southern states did secede after a decade of fighting for the expansion of slavery against the firm opposition of Abraham Lincoln, whom the states found unacceptable even though he was not an abolitionist. Even so, the rush to rename institutions and remove monuments represents a threat to history and cultural memory, and should not be undertaken lightly.

While Barack Obama was the first black president, and his name represents a great victory over the race-based slavery the Confederacy fought to expand, the 44th president remains controversial. Perhaps Gibson — no conservative herself — was right to suggest a local figure instead.