Woodson finds such trade-offs confounding. “Who are we giving legitimacy to [and] what philosophies and ideologies are we [prioritizing] when we rely on holding onto history?” Woodson asked. “What’s more important than the emotions of the young people who are in this school every day?”
More and more black students seem to be speaking out about the damage Confederate names and symbols can do. After a divisive, years-long debate, the Fairfax County School Board in Virginia voted last month to rechristen J.E.B. Stuart High School, named for a Confederate army officer, as “Justice High.” Bill Horkan, a math teacher at Stuart for 21 years, attended a May community meeting on the name change, where a black student named Julia Clark spoke. He was struck by the then-sophomore’s persuasive testimony.
I’m here today to tell you what it’s like to be a student of color at a school named after a racist. As a person of color, discrimination is all around me. In the media, in politics, and throughout the world. But discrimination should have no place in my school. Not only is it offensive that my school is named after a white supremacist, it is also degrading and dehumanizing.
For Horkan, who’s white, hearing black students speak on the issue was enlightening. “It’s hard enough to teach to begin with … [when students] aren’t feeling good about the school, it's much harder to reach them,” he said. “I can see why people would be offended by the name [so] if they are, then I think they should change it.”
The sentiment was echoed by Darian Featherstone, a black high-school senior in Oklahoma City, after his school board voted unanimously to retitle three Confederate-named elementary schools. Featherstone applauded the name change, telling Oklahoma City’s NBC-affiliate that students shouldn’t “be scared of the one place you should be able to be safe, the one place you should be able to learn.”
Back in Tyler, Texas, an August school board meeting drew more than 200 people with dozens fiercely debating the pros and cons of Robert E. Lee’s name on the city’s high school. In many ways, the school’s past is as thorny as its present. Lee opened in 1958 as a whites-only school to resist the Supreme Court decision calling for integrated schools. Since then, the student population has flipped, with nonwhite students now comprising more than 60 percent. Amid this shift, change seems imminent. A majority of Tyler school board members now agree with rebranding Robert E. Lee High School, with some wanting to take up the issue this school year.
Mauldin, the Tyler teen, is cautiously optimistic. “Nowadays, a lot of people are starting to realize it is wrong for us [and] starting to speak up more,” she said, adding that going to a school named after a Confederate general is just archaic. “It's 2017. That should not be an issue for us in this day and age.”