Virginia school board votes to restore Confederate names after bitter debate

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Two Virginia high schools will restore their Confederate names, marking a major U-turn following a change in the wake of the the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

The Shenandoah County School Board voted five to one to approve a motion to reinstate the names of Stonewall Jackson High and Ashby-Lee Elementary in the small town of Quicksburg.

Confederate generals Robert E Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, and cavalry commander Turner Ashby inspired the schools’ names.

Quicksburg residents have been embroiled in a heated debate on whether it is appropriate for the schools to be named after American Civil War icons from the Old South.

Now, members of the board have cast their votes five to one in favour of reinstating the original names, marking the first U-turn of its kind in the US.

Shenandoah County is almost 93 per cent white, according to the latest US census data from July 2023.

George Floyd’s killing in May 2020 sparked a summer of civil unrest as race relations where thrust into the spotlight across the US. Confederate status in public spaces were toppled – including one of General Robert E Lee.

Protestors over George Floyd’s killing (AP)

Ralph Northam, a former Democratic Governor, wrote to the Shenandoah County School Board lobbying for the change of school names and removal of Confederate-related iconography.

Three days later, the schools were renamed to foster an “inclusive school environment for all,” according to a six-member panel. Stonewall Jackson High became Mountain View High, and Ashby-Lee Elementary as Honey Run Elementary.

The haste of the decision sparked uproar from some of Quicksburg’s residents, who slammed the name change as undemocratic and a destruction of the state’s heritage.

A 2022 vote on the matter failed by a tied 3-3 vote - but the three who voted against the move have since been replaced on the school board.

“These groups hold historical significance,” the pro-name change group Claim the Names wrote in a letter to the school board, adding that “revisiting this decision is essential to honor our community’s heritage and respect the wishes of the majority”.

They added that, if necessary, they’d raise the funds to reinstate the school’s original name – including the changing of school signs.

Neil Thorn is a part of group Claim the Names, which is vehemently against the name change. He warned that a U-turn “will indelibly damage our community’s reputation”.

“The naming of these schools was not incidental but reflected the segregated policies of the time,” he said in a statement.

“The people who suffered through this are not past strangers - they are people we know, they are our friends and neighbours,” he concluded.

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