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Virginia NAACP sues school board that restored Confederate names

A new lawsuit seeks to prevent Mountain View High School in western Virginia from going back to its former name, Stonewall Jackson High School. The Shenandoah County School Board voted in May to restore the Confederate general's name to the school.
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A new lawsuit seeks to prevent Mountain View High School in western Virginia from going back to its former name, Stonewall Jackson High School. The Shenandoah County School Board voted in May to restore the Confederate general's name to the school.

When the Shenandoah County School Board voted last month to revert several school names to honor Confederate leaders like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, it created "an unlawful and discriminatory" environment for Black students, according to Virginia's NAACP chapter — which is now suing to rename the schools.

Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, include five students who say they don't want to be forced to glorify or represent historical figures who fought to maintain slavery and white supremacy.

"There's a cold wind blowing in America and it has especially chilled Shenandoah County," the Rev. Cozy Bailey, the Virginia NAACP president, said at a news conference Tuesday. The board’s recent decision, he said, echoed the Jim Crow era of injustice and intimidation.

The controversial May 9 decision returned the names of Confederate generals Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Turner Ashby to two local schools. The names had been removed nearly four years earlier, as part of a widespread re-examination of U.S. monuments and landmarks.

"This backward move has received a negative reaction all over the world," Bailey said, "and the world is watching to see if this variety of the seeds of hate and disenfranchisement will take root and return Shenandoah County and the Commonwealth of Virginia to the days when racial exclusion was the law of the land."

The schools' names are steeped in controversy

The Shenandoah school board voted last month to revert Mountain View High School to its former name, Stonewall Jackson High School, and to revert Honey Run Elementary School to Ashby-Lee Elementary School. Both schools are in Quicksburg, Va.

In a contentious board meeting, opponents of the move — including some current students — noted that the 1959 decision to name the schools after Confederate generals came at a time when Virginia's leaders were fighting to keep the state's schools racially segregated, despite the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. By embracing the Confederate names now, they said, the board would brand their county as a haven for backward and racist thinking.

Supporters of undoing the 2020 change said that taking Confederate figures' names off the schools was a "knee-jerk" reaction to protests of George Floyd's murder by police. The removal, they said, looked to erase the region's history and silence its majority. Some also said the change had been adopted after little debate and notice. In the end, the board approved changing back to the Confederate names by a 5-1 vote.

On Tuesday, a student who spoke at the NAACP news conference said that the decision made her feel "unwelcome in a place that I go every day, which should never be the case."

Officials from the Shenandoah County School Board did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment. The board is slated to hold its monthly meeting on Thursday.

Lawsuit calls for a new change

The federal lawsuit seeks to keep the schools' recent names, Mountain View High School and Honey Run Elementary School, and to prevent any future discriminatory names or symbols.

"Plaintiffs are not seeking damages in this case," said attorney Ashley Joyner Chavous, of the Covington & Burling law firm, at Tuesday's news conference. "They are seeking change — in the right direction."

In the lawsuit, the Virginia NAACP argues that restoring the Confederate names violates four laws: the First and Fourteenth Amendments; Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and the Equal Education Opportunities Act.

Another attorney involved in the suit, Marja Plater of the Washington Lawyers’' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said the Confederate names pose dire problems for students of color.

"A Black high schooler who wants to play on the soccer team must wear the Stonewall Jackson 'Generals' uniform," she said in a statement. "The student must honor a Confederate leader who fought to keep Black people in chains as slaves. Exposing children to this persistent racism and hate harms their self-worth and long-term health."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer, reporter and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.