School board in Virginia votes to restore Confederate names

By Evelyn Hockstein and Julia Harte

WOODSTOCK, Virginia (Reuters) - The education board for a rural Virginia county voted early on Friday to restore the names of Confederate generals stripped from two schools in 2020, making the mostly white, Republican district the first in the U.S. to take such an action.

By a 5-1 vote, the Shenandoah County board overturned its 2020 decision that stripped a public high school and elementary school of their original names honoring three military leaders of the pro-slavery South in the Civil War.

Under the board's action, Mountain View High School will again become known as Stonewall Jackson High, while Honey Run Elementary School will revert to the name Ashby Lee Elementary.

The names belong to some of the most well-known military leaders of the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee was commander of the Army of Northern Virginia; Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson was a Confederate infantry general, and Turner Ashby was a rebel cavalry commander. All of them were Virginians.

Any funds required to implement the changes must come exclusively from private sources, rather than public revenue.

The vote contrasted with a four-year trend of U.S. schools and other public buildings and institutions removing names and symbols associated with the Confederacy, following protests for racial justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020.

Among more than 60 schools that have abolished Confederate appellations across the country since 2020, none had reversed course until now, according to the trade publication Education Week, which has tracked the issue.

Still, the issue has remained a point of contention for many political conservatives, particularly among Southern white people, who see Confederate monuments and place names as honoring the South's traditions and history.

Such was the argument posed by some local citizens who spoke at Thursday night's meeting in favor of restoring the Confederate school names.

Speakers on the other side countered that such symbols and memorials are vestiges of a racist ideology that has perpetuated a sanitized "Lost Cause" myth of the Confederacy as well as the Jim Crow era of racial segregation and discrimination that followed the Civil War.

Many of them noted that Stonewall Jackson High was named in 1959 when it allowed only white people to attend and when Virginia political leaders were still resisting racial integration as ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court under the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

Thursday's school board debate played out in the seat of Shenandoah County, an overwhelmingly white, heavily Republican jurisdiction in the Shenandoah Valley about 150 miles (240 km) northwest Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Black people make up fewer than 3% of the county's population, according to 2020 Census figures.

The proposal voted on was initiated by a local conservative group, the Coalition for Better Schools, which cited the "cultural significance" and "historical context" of the original names.

In its written request to the board, the group also cited surveys that it mailed to residents of the districts from which the schools' students are drawn. It said that out of 1,160 responses to 8,507 surveys sent, more than 90% favored switching back to the Confederate names.

Sarah Kohrs, who graduated from both schools, is co-leader of an opposing citizens group that gathered 687 signatures on an online petition to keep the current names. Her oldest child attends the high school, and she expects to enroll a younger child there as well.

After Friday's vote, Kohrs said her group deplored the decision to "regress and 'honor' Civil War figures that consciously betrayed the United States and were proponents of slavery and segregation," and vowed to work even harder to promote public understanding of "complete history, good and bad."

"This decision seems more about vengeance, control, and hatred than heritage or due process," she said.

Kohrs said the political makeup of the school board has grown more conservative over the past four years.

Kyle Gutshall, the board's vice chairman, said the 2020 name change had increased public attention on the board and helped shift its political composition to the right.

He voted to reinstate the Confederate names when a similar motion came up in 2022, primarily because he felt the 2020 decision was made without sufficient public input. The 2022 motion failed due to a tied vote.

Gutshall cast the lone "no" vote on Friday, after previously telling Reuters there was overwhelming support in his part of the county to keep the current names.

(Reporting by Evelyn Hockstein in Woodstock, Virginia and Julia Harte in New York; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)