Arlingtonians Divided Over Renaming Washington-Lee

The name of the county's largest high school means different things to different people.

 

Douglass, who commented publicly at the June school board meeting, is now a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, where he intends to major in history. He says he’s become aware of how easily history can be misrepresented. As an example, he refers to an oft-cited letter that Lee wrote to his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, in 1856. In it, the general said “slavery as an institution…is a moral & political evil in any Country.”

It’s a convenient snippet for defenders of Lee’s character, Douglass says, but farther down in the same letter, Lee writes that slavery is “a greater evil to the white than to the black race… The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

Douglass uses this anecdote to make his point: “We don’t need the name of a man who once said that slavery is a worse evil to the white race than the black race to adorn our school.”

 

Not everyone sees the name of the school as synonymous with the man. For some, a reference to W-L is more likely to stir up nostalgic memories of math class, pep rallies and old flames.

“[Washington-Lee] is where I played sports, met my first girlfriend, drove my first car and developed so many lasting relationships,” says Thomas, the former Arlington Historical Society president.

“I gained valuable learning experiences and made many friends there,” says Craig Syphax, Class of 1980, a past president of the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington. “Washington-Lee is instilled in my blood. If I had my way, it would always be Washington-Lee.”

Some would argue that after 94 years, W-L has earned its own identity. The lawsuit (a copy of which was obtained by Arlington Magazine) underscores this point.

“The name of the school has developed its own meaning and significance…completely independent of any connection to persons from whom it originally borrowed a name…,” the suit states. “[It] conveys its own history, not a separate history of past historical figures.”

W-L does have a legacy that speaks for itself. An athletic and academic powerhouse, it’s consistently ranked as one of America’s 150 most challenging high schools. Hallways, trophy cases and yearbooks boast hundreds of notable alumni, including NFL Super Bowl champ Jake Scott, Olympic medalist Shelley Mann, Academy Award winner Sandra Bullock and Nobel Prize recipient Robert C. Richardson.

It’s also not the only Arlington landmark bearing Lee’s name, which is seemingly everywhere—attached to roads, community centers, parks and neighborhoods. Arlington County itself shares the same name as the former estate home of Robert E. Lee and Mary Anna Custis Lee—Arlington House—which is now part of Arlington National Cemetery.

 

Under a previously adopted policy, the school board does reserve the right to name and rename its facilities, which means that its actions in June were not technically out of bounds. (When asked to comment for this story, school officials continued to stand by an earlier statement that “the decision made in June to revise the Naming of Facilities policy and, as a result of that policy change, to direct staff to begin a process to rename Washington-Lee High School, was appropriate.”) But the board’s accelerated move has left some stakeholders feeling marginalized. Current students, especially.

Soforenko says that while many W-L students support a name change, there’s a general unease about the fact that the current student body was not invited to weigh in. “On certain issues, I think [the school board] definitely walks all over the students,” she says, “and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any alumni come through and talk to us [about the name change] either.”

Johnson, a member of W-L’s crew team and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, is less focused on the symbolism of the name than the precedent being set by the school board’s swift actions. Elected officials promised to be “transparent,” he says, but their decision-making was anything but. “If we have a [school] board that can go out and say one thing and then do the exact opposite, it goes for more than just this issue. It’s basically saying that they can do whatever they want.”

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