Debate continues over name of Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton

Published: Jun. 25, 2018 at 10:26 PM EDT
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The name for Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton was chosen in 1914.

More than a century later, some people in the city want to change its name; others oppose such a move.

"It's woven into the whole fabric of this area," Betty Jordan, an alumna of the school, said.

Jordan, along with several other alumni of Robert E. Lee High School, gathered at Gypsy Hill Park on Monday to hand out signs, buttons and bumper stickers.

The group has raised money online and collected thousands of signatures from people who support keeping the name.

"I just took it on as a challenge, you know, we can't let this happen," Jordan said.

"You go to football games and see all kinds of people there," Jordan said. "They're proud to wear their Lee hats and sweatshirts and jackets."

Mark Jeter is the vice chair of Staunton Action, a group that is "committed to diversity and inclusion in Staunton city schools." Jeter strongly supports changing the name back to Staunton High School, the school's original name.

"To change it to Stanton High School," Jeter said. "That change is not going to hurt somebody. But to leave it as R. E. Lee, it does hurt people. The name of somebody who led an army against a government and the question was whether to enslave people or not, that can be painful for the people that were enslaved."

Jeter believes that a new name would also be good for the city, politically and economically.

"They look at us and say, that's a community that supports something like that," Jeter said. "How are we going to attract businesses and families and people that are going to make this community continue to grow into the 21st century and not clutch on to that 150-year-old legacy."

Jordan, however, argues that a name change would cost the school hundreds of thousands of dollars, citing the need to pay for new sports and band uniforms, as well as the re-branding of the building.

"Money like that would be better spent towards education, teacher salaries, things for the students to help them," Jordan said. "Not just change a sign on the front of a school."

Costs for renaming don't typically run as high as Jordan's estimate, however. An elementary school in Richmond that was named for Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart and was recently

estimated the cost of the name change at $26,000.

WHSV has reached out to the city to see if it is considering changing the name but we have yet to hear back. A public hearing was

to get opinions from people on both sides of the debate, sparked by the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, which was initially planned over the city's decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.

An analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center last year found that 21 schools in Virginia are named after well-known Confederate generals. Most were built either between 1950 and 1970, around the time Brown v. Board of Education mandated school integration, or in the early 1900's when Jim Crow laws were prevalent throughout the South.

There have been several pushes over recent years to change the name of Staunton's only public high school. None have succeeded in the past.