Arlingtonians Divided Over Renaming Washington-Lee
The name of the county's largest high school means different things to different people.
Outside of Arlington, academic institutions grappling with similar issues of posterity have arrived at their own conclusions. In 2016, Yale University used a “principal legacy” argument to back up its decision to remove a controversial historical figure—John C. Calhoun, a prominent defender of slavery—from one of its campuses.
Earlier this year, Washington & Lee University (whose name was the inspiration for W-L) decided to keep its own moniker after a 12-member commission was appointed to conduct an extensive review of what a name change might entail. In the end, university officials determined that their efforts were better spent figuring out how to best teach and present the college’s controversial past in an honest way.
Arlington county residents seem to be divided on the prospect of a W-L name change. In August, a poll by the news site ARLnow asked, “Should Washington-Lee HS be renamed to remove ‘Lee’ from the name?” More than 8,000 people weighed in, and more than two-thirds of respondents voted “no.”
Meanwhile, the school board is moving forward. In September, it formed a renaming committee—a group that includes current and former students, W-L staff, parents and neighboring civic association leaders. The board has indicated that a new name will likely be announced in early- to mid-2019.
Hanging over those proceedings is the aforementioned lawsuit. At press time, the plaintiffs were seeking an injunction to pause the renaming effort.
As a student, Soforenko is on the fence about adopting a different name. She says she respects and understands why some of her classmates bristle at having the name “Lee” affixed to their uniforms, spirit swag and diplomas. She thinks the school board could have done a better job consulting everyone who would be impacted by a name change and getting more input at the beginning of the process.
She’s also a little worried about what the new name might be. Here, she references Fairfax County Public Schools’ decision last year to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church to Justice High School.
“If they change it to something like Liberty or Justice—like they did at Stuart—I’d rather keep it Washington-Lee,” she says. “That would be almost embarrassing and just blatantly pandering.”
Pro or con, some of her more enterprising classmates are taking stock of their hoodies, T-shirts and car stickers. “They say they now have ‘exclusive merch’ because it all says Washington-Lee…and, soon, [that name] could be gone.”
Columbia Pike resident Matt Blitz writes about history, science and other topics for national and local magazines. He’s also the head of the Atlas Obscura Society D.C.