A Virginia school that drew controversy for its name honoring a Confederate general will soon have a new name — Barack Obama Elementary School.
J.E.B. Stewart Elementary School in Richmond had long attracted critics for its name, so the Richmond Public School Board this week took a vote on renaming the school. As WTVR reported, the board had compiled a list of seven finalists, and on Monday voted 8-1 to rename the school in honor of the 44th President of the United States. The school’s student body is 95 percent African-American, The Hill noted.
Others options for renaming J.E.B. Stewart Elementary School included Oliver Hill, a renowned civil rights attorney from Richmond, and Northside Elementary, reflecting the neighborhood where the school is situated. The three finalists were Obama, Northside, and Wishtree, in honor of a book.
The move to rename the school in honor of Barack Obama comes amid a nationwide movement to remove monuments and memorials to Confederate soldiers. One of the most notable examples came about 70 miles down Route 64 in Charlottesville, Virginia, where last summer groups of white supremacists gathered to protest the planned removal of Confederate statues. The protests led to outbursts of violence including an attack that left a counter-protester dead.
Several other cities have gone on to remove Confederate statues and other schools bearing the names of Confederate leaders have also changed their names. As the Washington Post noted in a 2015 article, there were close to 200 schools in the United States with names honoring Confederate leaders and a growing movement to rename them. Many of the communities have instead decided to honor leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, especially local ones.
A number of schools have moved away from being named after people entirely, as historical figures often had unsavory aspects to their legacy, including perpetuating racism. The Washington Post commented on this.
“School systems are becoming more sensitive to the potential for controversy over names, according to a 2007 study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, which found that it has become much less common for schools to be named after people, as school districts opt instead for names that are more generic, such as geographic features or patriotic themes.”
As WTVR noted, Richmond’s new Barack Obama Elementary School is actually not the first school to be named after the 44th president but it does mark the first time a school previously named for a Confederate army figure was renamed in his honor.