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J.E.B. Stuart High School students fight to rename school that honours Confederate general

Some students and alumni of Virginia's J.E.B. Stuart High School, including Hollywood actress Julianne Moore and famous producer Bruce Cohen, want the school's name changed because it honours a Confederate general and, they say, represents a racist history.

Actress Julianne Moore helps campaign to name school after late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall

A national discussion about the Confederate flag was sparked after a mass shooting in South Carolina in June. Some students at a school in Virginia that is named for a Confederate general want the name dropped. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)

Marley Finley and Lidia Amanuel will walk into their school, J.E.B. Stuart, this week to begin their final year of high school. By the time they finish in June, they are hoping to have accomplished a big task: changing the name of the school from which they will graduate.

They are among a group of students, along with some alumni, who are spearheading a campaign to rid their school in Falls Church, Va., of the name of a Confederate general who fought in the U.S. Civil War. Finley, Amanuel and their supporters argue that the James Ewell Brown Stuart name and its historic association with their school represent a racist history, and it's time for it to go.

The name doesn't appropriately reflect today's student body, which is one of the most ethnically diverse in the state, they say. Two-thirds of the student body have English as their second language. A few decades ago, this area of Virginia was resistant to black and white students going to school together, but the days of racial tension at J.E.B. Stuart are gone, according to the current students.

"We've come so far we don't want to stop now," said Amanuel, whose family came to the U.S. from Eritrea when she was a toddler.

A nationwide debate about the Confederate flag and symbols was sparked in June after the racially motivated murders of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina. The gunman wrote about wanting to incite a race war and posed in photos found online with the Civil War-era battle flag.

The massacre prompted legislators in South Carolina to vote in favour, although not unanimously, of bringing down the flag, which flew on the statehouse grounds. Major retailers stopped selling Confederate flag merchandise and across the U.S. there were other debates about renaming roads, bridges, and buildings that honour Confederate soldiers.

Julianne Moore lends support

The students at J.E.B. Stuart had started their campaign even before the shooting. They were inspired after learning in their history class about Stuart and about the massive resistance movement in the 1950s.

Massive resistance was a policy adopted by the Virginia legislature to block the desegregation of public schools, which had been mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Legal battles lasted years and helped delay the successful integration of black and white students in Virginia schools. It was in that era, in 1959, that Stuart opened its doors.
Julianne Moore, pictured at the Oscars in February, started a petition to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School, which she attended in the 1970s. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associated Press)

Those advocating for its name to be dropped believe the school was purposely named after a Confederate general in response and in opposition to desegregation.

"For so long the history of our school and the history of J.E.B. Stuart wasn't being addressed," said Amanuel. She and Finley have been educating their fellow students and the community at large about that history and gathering support for their efforts to get the name changed.

A few weeks ago they got some big Hollywood help: actress Julianne Moore and film producer Bruce Cohen, who both attended Stuart in the 1970s, started a petition on change.org. They wrote how when they attended the school its symbol was Stuart riding a horse carrying the Confederate flag and recalled how it was emblazoned on the basketball court and their athletic letter jackets.

Those images have since been removed. The school symbol is still Stuart riding a horse, but the flag is now solid blue.

"No one should have to apologize for the name of the public high school you attended and the history of racism it represents, as we and so many alumni of Stuart have felt the need to do our whole lives," Moore and Cohen wrote.

Competing petitions

They and others, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Fairfax County branch, are calling for the school to be renamed after Thurgood Marshall. Marshall was the first black Supreme Court justice and a key player in the fight for public school desegregation. It would be a particularly fitting tribute, they argue, because Marshall was a neighbour of the school, living in the community for years before he died in 1993.

More than 32,000 have signed the online petition started by Cohen and Moore. But not everyone is on board with the Hollywood heavyweights or the current students. There are competing online petitions that say the name should stay the same. Getting rid of it would be erasing history and Confederate fighters deserve to be honoured just like Union soldiers, critics of a name change say.

"We're not trying to re-write or erase history. There's plenty of room for history in the museums," George Alber, a member of the local NAACP, said in an interview. "It's fitting that a school this diverse should carry a different name, not a name for someone who fought and died to preserve slavery and let's face it, racism."

The students say it's frustrating when critics dismiss their efforts. They want them to understand that going to a school that bears the name of a Confederate soldier really does affect them. They also say changing the name is about the future, not the past.

"People will say you can't erase history and we say back that this is nothing to do with changing the past, we're not telling you to get rid of anything in the textbook," said Finley. "We're telling you that we want from now and into the future a school to be an environment where the students can feel more comfortable and can be completely proud of all the symbols representing them."

Finley and Amanuel said they will work hard this year on changing their school name, meeting with school board officials and the community to make their case.

"We believe this is the right thing to do and we have full confidence that over time people will come to see that as well and the name will be changed," said Finley.

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