Magazine Feature

Black Students and Educators at Confederate-Named Schools

In more than 100 U.S. schools, black educators and students see Confederate names on their walls, jerseys and diplomas. That’s a problem.
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Illustration by Carlos Basabe

My heart sank a little and my stomach churned every time I entered Stonewall Jackson Middle School for work—this campus in the heart of the black community on the west side of Charleston, West Virginia. As I entered each day, I glanced at the walls of the great foyer for artifacts of the school’s namesake, Stonewall Jackson (or his claim to fame), and saw nothing that would explain to the community who he was or why the school is named after him. Although excited to work with urban Appalachian youth—I call us “Urbalachians”—as a descendant of enslaved people, I could not quell my visceral reaction upon walking into that school, going to a sporting event or passing its curbside marquee, which emphasized “Respect and Responsibility.”

As a critically thinking African American teacher, the question for me became “Respect for whom and responsibility for what?” From that perspective, what I had learned about the Civil War and its competing armies could not justify valorizing the Confederates in general, much less forcing black students and black teachers to sanctify the names of Confederate heroes in more than 100 American public schools.

That is why I recently conducted a study through Marshall University that illustrates the tension black educators across the country grapple with when confronting vestiges of white supremacy disguised as nostalgia. In three focus groups over a two-week period, I interviewed 17 black educators who had worked in schools from Harlem to the hollers of Appalachia, and from Atlanta to San Francisco. For them, schools named to memorialize Confederates are inextricably tied to both historical and revived white supremacy movements across the globe—and they anchor these racist ideals into the daily environments and consciousness of the communities these teachers serve.

Educational leadership programs stress our ethical responsibility to interrogate the systems, organizational frameworks and leadership theories by which we make decisions for our students. The systems and theories that gave rise to the Confederate-named schools that so many of our students attend reveal inherent contradictions between those theories and our responsibilities to students. The naming of these schools was part of a campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to recast the Civil War narrative as the “Lost Cause” (especially in Southern schools), marginalize black history and resist the civil rights movement.

The black educators in the study were gracious enough to acknowledge the trauma that white Americans experienced during the Civil War for four years. But they also acknowledged a broader, national failure to recognize the terror and multigenerational trauma that American norms and laws unleashed on black people for four centuries. By not conceding this vast disproportion, our educational systems are tacitly endorsing the white supremacist agenda that sustained American slavery and continues to deprive students and educators of the respect and dignity they deserve.


Confederate-named Schools and Symbolic Capital

Because most public schools are the hubs of their communities, not only for educational engagement but also civic and political activity, they are a sacred public trust where Americans become socialized and develop their sense of belonging, identity and purpose. In essence, public schools hold immense symbolic capital.

Symbolic capital, a term coined by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, is the distinction and status that names bring to places and the people associated with them. But symbolic capital can simultaneously function as symbolic violence—also coined by Bourdieu—for stakeholders who remember the context of a place name differently, as is the case with Confederate namesakes for those in black communities. The educators in the study saw Confederate names as a symbolic trifecta for white supremacy. These names amplify racial inequities in society, the opportunity gap for black and Latinx populations, and the white privilege that allows many educators to remain oblivious to the suffering of students and colleagues of color.

More to the point, the study revealed that black educators were disturbed by schools named for Confederates: “I think a school named after a Confederate could only be used as a negative role model for black students—or any student for that matter—of what not to do,” said one participant.

University of Tennessee cultural and historical geographer Derek Alderman builds on Bourdieu’s work to engage with “regional symbolic capital.” In his 2008 essay “Place, Naming and the Interpretation of Cultural Landscapes,” he explains that names evoke powerful images and connotations that contribute to a sense of place in geography, history and society. They even reflect larger social disputes about who has the authority to create, define, interpret and represent collective pasts through place. While Confederate-named schools exist around the United States, they are most certainly meant to evoke images of a particular place and time.

Again, the simultaneous symbolic capital and violence associated with these namesakes trouble black educators who must work in them each day. One educator in the study noted the irony of these public memorials: “What I don’t understand about Stonewall, [and others] in the Confederacy, is since they lost the war, how can their flags be put up in a country in which they lost?” For this educator, teaching lessons on the Confederacy’s pro-slavery stance and secession from the United States at a school named for a Confederate hero created a moral dilemma.

For another teacher, these namesakes clearly speak to the idea of the symbolic trifecta that arose from the study: that these public school names highlight society’s racial inequities and the white privilege that allows these memorials to remain in place. “They were Confederates and they weren’t fighting for us. ... I think they should be removed, but it’s ingrained in the system,” he said. “As a black man in America, we know what’s happening. It’s no surprise to us as a people. We see it every day: shootings, nobody getting convicted. This is the country we live in. ... This is the system we’re a part of.”


Coping With the Symbolic Violence of Confederate-named Schools

From my discussions with these educators, developing pride in all of their students—especially those of color—is a cornerstone of their teaching philosophy, and schools named for Confederates deprive them of that opportunity. One participant pointed out the disconnect between the principles of these namesakes and what educators hope to instill in their students: “White supremacists and Confederates were aligned with racist ideals—for others being less than them and hate for others that aren’t their race. Their ideals can’t be incorporated into school-wide programs like [other role models].” Another educator noted the impact of a lifelong affiliation with one of these schools for educators and students. “I don’t want my Teacher of the Year Award to have my name tied with a white supremacist,” the participant reflected. “Just think of all the African American student diplomas under the banner of a Confederate for a lifetime.”

I don’t want our kids to go through what we went through. ... I don’t think this generation needs to bear that burden.

This lack of perception in our educational systems allows the symbolic violence of these schools to usurp opportunities for all our teachers and communities, but especially those of black people, to promote Confederate namesakes as valuable symbolic capital that instills national and cultural pride in their students.

Many black educators, like myself, contend with not only our own direct experiences of racism but also the stories of our enslaved ancestors conveyed by family griots at our kitchen tables. We use a variety of mechanisms to downplay the symbolic violence of schools named for Confederates so that we can serve our communities. We emphasize “the greater good,” for example, that comes from all students learning from diverse role models. “If it’s not us, who?” one educator noted. “That’s why I felt when I went to Stonewall Jackson, I could push up the kids: give ’em motivation. ... That’s why we do what we do. We want to push our people up. It is what it is—God’s gonna take care of us.”

Others may ignore or minimize the harm in order to get the job—and get the job done. “You don’t go in when you get interviewed for a job and say, ‘Oh no, I can’t work at Robert E. Lee ’cause it’s named after a Confederate general,’” one teacher explained. “You say, ‘What days do I get paid? The 10th and the 25th.’ I show up. I do my thing. ... The only thing for you to do is regroup as the teacher. But you’re the grown person and you took the job, took the training. Take the money. Straighten out your act and do the best you can.”

The overwhelming majority of the educators in the study were forced to accommodate the mental and emotional effects of working in these spaces—what many of us know as racial microaggressions—as part of their work experiences. One participant observed, “[In] particular, as a black public servant, that assignment at a school named after a Confederate in my county is one of only a handful where you can impact the lives of black students in a black community. ... It’s humiliating.”

The study suggests that the continued existence of white supremacist and Confederate names on public schools counteracts social justice and equity programs within the American public educational system and sends confusing messages to all students and educators about who is worthy of celebration in our country. And while the participants expressed their own struggles with the ironies of teaching in these spaces, some questioned whether black students would be served well by discussing these contradictions in class.

It’s important to note that students at colleges and universities across the country have led demonstrations against the sanctioning of white supremacy in building names on their campuses. But, for some of the study participants, the idea of rectifying the naming problem in our K–12 public schools through student-centered approaches raised concerns about the effects on black children, whose youth may leave them more vulnerable than those in college. Some educators felt that making an issue of this symbolic violence with students who may already have distrust of our American agencies (like law enforcement) may be more damaging than beneficial.

Although admitting the potential benefits of developing critical thinking and civic engagement by raising this topic with students, one educator stressed that they might not be enough to mitigate the potential disruptions to learning and wellness. “When my cousin and I went to schools named after Confederates in the ’80s, we would have kicked butt if we heard them say [the n-word] but didn’t know what ‘the Dukes of Hazzard flag’ stood for or who our school was named for. ... I felt betrayed [when I found out],” he said. “I don’t want our kids to go through what we went through in terms of being exposed to how harsh and insensitively they’re being treated. I don’t think this generation needs to bear that burden or even ponder on that. So, in my opinion, we need to just wipe the names out with no explanation.”


Why Renaming These Schools Matters

With over 27,000 black students and hundreds of thousands of others attending schools that pose symbolic violence through their names, would awakening them to what these people actually represented in American history undermine the work we do in schools to unite around common moral values? As educators, we have a delicate balance to strike. Some localities, such as the Houston Independent School District, have decided to rename all Confederate-named schools to reflect our more inclusive society. Others, such as the Fairfax County Public School District in Virginia, have addressed the issue only as community members have raised concerns, voting to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School, for example, while retaining Robert E. Lee High School.

Whatever the approach, we must raise our voices against the ongoing symbolic violence that these schools inflict on black students and educators. We have a responsibility as educators and leaders to give our students the most respectful environment possible.

A war was already fought and settled to ensure that, wasn’t it?

Gregg Suzanne Ferguson, a K–12 counselor and university lecturer, is the president of Mothers of Diversity America and a member of the Marshall University Graduate Humanities Program’s West Virginia Activist Archives Project.

Renaming Schools: Success Stories and Possibilities

In October 2017, a Falls Church, Virginia, high school named for Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart over 60 years ago had its name changed to Justice High School after a long local battle led by students and actor Julianne Moore, who had attended the school under its former name. The price tag to change uniforms and signage was in the hundreds of thousands, money raised mostly by families and private donors. But for the students, the name change gave them a priceless boost in pride.

Cost-saving measures taken by other schools include rebranding, such as the Robert E. Lee High School in Texas, which used the name as an acronym: Legacy of Educational Excellence (L.E.E.). This change allowed the school to continue using its uniforms and newly turfed field. Other schools have changed names to more suitable honorees, like an Oklahoma elementary school did in renaming Lee Elementary after philanthropist Adelaide Lee.

Students at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in West Virginia have used the moniker “The Wall” as resistance, and in an ongoing local debate, some suggest retaining the abbreviation SJMS for a new generation as the Social Justice Middle School.