Why it is indefensible to keep Confederate names on schools

The issue of honoring Confederate figures has been in the spotlight in recent weeks as protesters around the country have demanded police reform and justice for black men and women killed by police with impunity. In some places, protesters have pulled down or defaced Southern icons, and there are calls to take down all of them that remain standing in public spaces.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says its newest count shows 110 public schools, mostly in the South, still named after Confederate leaders, and 43 other schools that have been renamed (though the nonprofit organization says it can’t be sure there aren’t others).

Those who support retaining the names say they represent Southern heritage. Critics say that heritage at its core is about white supremacy and that retaining on schools the names of Confederate leaders who fought the Civil War to maintain slavery is a message to black Americans that they still are not equal.

My post talked about the frustrating years-long effort in one Virginia school district, Hanover, by community members to get local elected officials to rename two schools. But that isn’t the only place it has been difficult to get local officials to change the names of schools that honor Gens. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, as well as Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and other major figures in the South during the Civil War era.

In the piece below, Gregg Suzanne Ferguson, a veteran K-12 teacher and counselor who is now an adjunct professor at West Virginia State University, explains why it is indefensible to maintain these names on schools and includes the thinking of black educators who she interviewed for a story.

She is the founder and executive director of Mothers of Diversity America, a nonprofit organization which provides resources to parents and students to combat discrimination in education, and consults with civil rights attorneys, nonprofit organizations and education activists across the country on campaigns to change the names of schools named after Confederate leaders. She has also served as a higher education administrator in diversity, equity and inclusion; a civil rights investigator; a policy analyst; a higher education program director and a successful grant writer.

By Gregg Suzanne Ferguson

In teacher preparation, we were introduced to the concepts of implicit bias, unconscious racism and the hidden curriculums they produce. We are encouraged to confront it in ourselves, our students and our colleagues. Still, an often overlooked environmental aspect is the school name where, especially in the South, distortions of heritage seem to be conflated with local governance that control public money, public landscape, and the naming of public schools.

I recall facing this dilemma going to work at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in the heart of the black community on the West Side of Charleston, W.Va. As I entered, I glanced throughout the walls of the great foyer for artifacts of the 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 that explanation seemed conspicuously absent, it was an ironic relief to me. Still, as a descendant of slaves, I could not quell my visceral reaction of going to that school. Although anxious to work with the urban Appalachian youth (I call us Urbalachians), my heart sank a little and my stomach churned every time I entered the building for work, went to a sporting event or passed its curbside marquee which emphasized “Respect and Responsibility.”

As a critically thinking African American teacher, the question became: “Respect for whom and responsibility for what?” From that perspective, I wondered why what I had learned about the Civil War and its competing armies could not reconcile valorizing the Confederates in general, much less forcing black students and black teachers to sanctify the names of Confederate heroes with their talents in America’s public schools.

A recent study I did through Marshall University illustrated the tension black educators across the country grapple with when confronting vestiges of white supremacy disguised as nostalgia in the form of 200 Confederate namesake public schools. In three focus groups over a two-week period, I interviewed 17 black educators who had worked in schools in Harlem and Appalachia, and from Atlanta to San Francisco.

For those educators, schools named to memorialize Confederates are inextricably tied to both historical and revived white supremacy movements across the globe which anchor racist ideals into the daily environment and consciousness of communities they serve.

Especially across the South, the naming of schools was part of a campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to control the Civil War narrative as the “lost cause,” marginalize black history and resist the Civil Rights movement. Although black educators in the study were gracious enough to understand the four years of trauma endured by white culture during the Civil War, the #HeritageNotHate movement fails to recognize what Southern norms and laws unleashed on blacks for four centuries.

The black educators in the study saw Confederate names symbolically as a trifecta for white supremacy that amplifies:

1) racial inequities in society,

2) the academic achievement gap for black and Latino populations, and

3) the oblivion of white privilege in educational systems which allow racist ideals to usurp coveted symbolic capital from them and black communities.

Symbolic capital recognizes how place names brings distinction and status to landscapes and people associated with them, but it can simultaneously function as symbolic violence for stakeholders who remember the past differently, as is the case with Confederate namesakes for those in the black community.

The study revealed black educators were disturbed by schools named for Confederates. One said: “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.”

Another educator noted, “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 one teacher it was part of the larger systemic apathy: “They were Confederates and they weren’t fighting for us. … I think they should be removed, but it’s ingrained in the system. … I can’t believe there’s still statues at state capitols. As a black man in America we know what’s happening. It’s no surprise to us as a people, we see it everyday — shootings, nobody getting convicted, this is the country we live in; this is what we live in; this is the system we’re a part of.”

Another used an analogy for schools named for Confederates: “[B]ut you still make the kids who are wounded and whose parents died of lung cancer — not just from smoking themselves, but from the secondhand smoke of people who didn’t care — go to the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Industry High School and wear the uniform of the ‘Cigars and Cigarettes’ and say it honors a history of when smoking was acceptable? Smoking is analogous to racism — Some whites thought it was right, but it wasn’t. blacks have grandparents who suffered the whip and worse from southern slavery — it’s not a theoretical debate, but a kitchen table memoir.”

Another finding from the study focused on the mechanisms of coping with racism, which force black educators to downplay the symbolic violence of schools named for Confederates in order to serve their communities.

One teacher said: “[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.”

Another noted: “If it’s not us, who? That’s why I felt when I went to Stonewall Jackson, I could push up the kid — 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.”

From discussions with black educators, building pride in all of their students, and especially those of color, is a cornerstone of their teaching philosophy and schools named for white supremacists deprived them of that opportunity.

“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 schoolwide programs like [other role models],” one said.

Others noting lifelong affiliations, “I don’t want my Teacher of the Year Award to have my name tied with a white supremacist. … Just think of all the African American student diplomas under the banner of a Confederate for a lifetime.”

However, rectifying the naming problem brought up other considerations about the effects of the controversy on the psyche of black students, many of whom already grapple with issues of trust in American institutions.

With a symbol of American intolerance being allowed to thrive with the sanction of our seats of government, our institutions of higher education, and our public school systems it may have the effect of confirming to black students that black lives will never matter.

One educator countered the notion that there would be benefits of developing black students’ critical thinking skills through an analysis of overt racism lingering in their school-naming policy. He stressed it would not be enough to mitigate the potential disruptions to learning, saying:

“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 Hazard’ flag stood for or who our school was named for. … We were fighting personal battles with racist students and some teachers then. Our parents had fought to attend school themselves and for us to get a ‘good’ education — at schools that had a separate gym and cafeteria and auditorium … not a multipurpose room.

“And now a lot of blacks are locked into the nostalgia of their alma maters regardless of the name. 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 — educators can’t continue to ignore what Confederates wanted for blacks.”

With thousands of black students attending schools that pose symbolic violence, awakening them to what these men actually represented in American history could antagonize and disengage them further from their educational systems.

Consequently, educators from all backgrounds, some of whom suffer emotional and psychological effects from what mental health practitioners call, racial microaggressions, have a problem to solve together.

While some local school districts or boards have made unilateral decisions about changing names to reflect a more perfect union, others have left it to local public opinion through town halls and petitions.

But others see it as a federal civil rights issue that goes beyond local sentiments which may be mired in nostalgia. Scholars point to a discussion that these names, which operate as discrimination in the workplace, is a violation of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission law.

Some legal scholarship suggests that eliminating Confederate-named public schools is a natural constitutional progression of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954, which declared segregated school unconstitutional. In that ruling, the court relied on the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

This requires us, especially the educational community, to acknowledge both the racist intent of the Confederacy and the disturbing effects on blacks of working or attending America’s public schools honoring them in name.

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?

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