School & District Management Explainer

Schools Named for Confederate Leaders: The Renaming Debate, Explained

By Corey Mitchell — April 04, 2018 | Updated: April 13, 2018 6 min read
Students at Robert E. Lee High School walk past a statue of the Confederate general who is the namesake of the Montgomery, Ala., high school. The school’s student body now is predominantly African-American and some students and community members have pushed for the removal of the statue.
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Updated: This story was updated with the latest cost estimates for changing school names in Fairfax County, Va., and Houston.

Despite a wave of recent campaigns to remove the names of Confederate leaders from public schools, roughly 140 buildings in K-12 school districts still honor figures from that foregone era, an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal education data from the 2015-16 school year found. But that number has been dropping, as school leaders have decided to change the names of at least 36 Confederate-themed schools since June 2015 when a white supremacist shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. That mass murder, along with the death and injuries at a 2017 white supremacist rally and counter-protest in Charlottesville, Va., marked critical junctures in the ongoing public debate around celebrating men who waged war to maintain slavery.

But little has changed across much of the southern United States, where either state law or public support for the Confederacy has derailed efforts to rename schools.

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How many schools in the United States are named for Confederate figures?

The Confederate-themed schools represent just one-tenth of one percent of the roughly 98,000 public schools in the United States. Eighty of them are named for Gen. Robert E. Lee, while more than a dozen bear the names of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate states. A majority of the schools were built after 1950, close to a century after the end of the Civil War. That many of the schools were built or renamed at the onset of the civil rights era was not coincidence, but rather “the result of the reassertion of white supremacy,” said Heidi Beirich, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks hate groups and extremism.

In what parts of the United States are the schools named for Confederate figures located?

The schools are scattered across 15 states, but two-thirds are located in just five states—Texas, Virginia, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana. There is a wide swath of the country—from Texas’ western borders to the West coast—with almost no schools named for Confederate leaders. The lone exception is Robert E. Lee Elementary in Wenatchee, Wash. It’s also the only school named for a Confederate that’s north of the Mason-Dixon line, which prior to the Civil War, was the nation’s dividing line between slave states and free states. The school’s location is of note because Washington was not yet a state when the Civil War was fought. The town’s local newspaper, the Wenatchee World, reported that the school, originally named for an orchard owner, was named for the Confederate general in 1995 to acknowledge townsfolk who relocated from the southern United States.

Of course, school names are not the only Confederate ties to K-12 education. Dozens of schools across the country, with most in the southeastern region, also have Dixie-themed fight songs and use Confederate symbols, including battle flags and Rebel mascots.

What prompted the recent name changes?

While campaigns to rid public spaces of the Confederate flag and to drop the use of Confederate-themed names for public spaces have existed for years, the Charleston shootings activated a wave of change in K-12 education.

The shooter in the Charleston church massacre created a website where he posted multiple photographs of himself with a Confederate battle flag. Following the shooting, a nationwide discussion emerged regarding the appropriateness of Confederate symbolism.

But efforts to drop the names and symbols often face strong resistance from people who argue they want to preserve Confederate heritage. The more recent wave to remove Confederate statues and change school names was sparked by the events in Charlottesville. Some school districts began to re-examine the names on their buildings and the burden those names carry and have just begun the process of rebranding schools after months of seeking public input.

Schools in diverse districts, such as Austin, Houston, and San Antonio in Texas have replaced the names of multiple schools, but some districts where the student bodies are almost entirely black and Hispanic are located in towns and counties named for Confederate figures.

What is the racial composition of the schools named for Confederate figures?

While more white students attend the schools than any other single racial group, 62 percent of the students who attend the Confederate-named schools are not white, and 75 of the schools have more black and Hispanic students than white students, according to the Education Week Research Center analysis.

The contrast between who the schools are named for and the students they serve is stark in some places. In northeast Arkansas, Forrest City and its schools, where 89 percent of students are black, are named for Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Schools also bear his name in Forrest County, Miss., a district where about 30 percent of students are black.

Those are not the only schools that have been named for Forrest. In Jacksonville, Fla., the Duval County school board changed the name of a building named for Forrest to Westside High School in 2014, more than five decades after it first opened. And in Forrest’s hometown of Chapel Hill, Tenn., about 45 miles south of Nashville, a combination middle-high school still bears his name.

How much money does it cost to change the name of a school?

The price tag varies from state to state and school to school, with some citing cost as a chief reason not to abandon the name of a school. In Fairfax County, Va., school officials now estimate that it will cost about $368,000 to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High, named in honor of the Confederate general James Ewell Brown Stuart. Initial estimates set the price tag at more than a half-million dollars. The costs will include changing school signs, sports jerseys, and band uniforms to reflect the school’s new name, which is Justice High. To offset the cost, the district has solicited more than $75,000 in private donations. Some residents in Houston have not been as supportive. A group of parents and alumni sued the district in an effort to halt the process of changing the names of seven buildings, a project which the district now estimates would cost about $1.2 million.

Some schools in Texas have helped cut costs with subtle name changes. In San Antonio, school leaders changed the name of Robert E. Lee High to L.E.E. High, with the LEE serving as an acronym for Legacy of Education Excellence. But that decision drew criticism from parents and students who felt the change was inadequate since it still carries the ‘Lee’ name. In Houston, leaders took a different approach, renaming Sidney Lanier Middle, which commemorated the Confederate Army veteran, to Bob Lanier Middle, a former mayor of the city.

Which states are not changing school names?

Some communities with strong Civil War ties have been reluctant to even consider name changes.

State laws on the books in Alabama and South Carolina restrict the renaming of public schools named for Confederate leaders, school board members and state lawmakers say. The Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017 requires approval by a state committee to rename a school named or dedicated in honor of an event, person, group, movement or military service. In South Carolina, the Heritage Act, passed in 2000, prevents the renaming of any school named in honor of the Confederacy or the civil rights movement without a vote by the legislature.

Additional Resources
Are Confederate-Statue Controversies Teachable Moments?
Pressure Mounts Against Schools’ Confederate Ties
As Confederate Monuments Come Down, Teachers Wrestle With Class Discussion
Civil War: Teaching a Defining Conflict

How to Cite This Article
Mitchell, C. (2018, April 4). Schools Named for Confederate Leaders: The Renaming Debate, Explained. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/leadership/schools-named-for-confederate-leaders-the-renaming-debate-exaplained/2018/04
Alex Harwin, Research Analyst and Holly Peele, Library Director contributed to this article.

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