A Virginia school district announced on Thursday that it would rename Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield for John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights giant who died last week.
The name change, which is expected to go into effect in September, has been in the works for over a year and a half, according to Tamara Derenak Kaufax, a school board member. Mr. Lewis, who was called “the conscience of the Congress” by his colleagues, had been on a short list of names since March that also included former President Barack Obama and Cesar Chavez, the farmworker organizer, she added.
“We thought, ‘Does the Confederacy represent who we are?’” Ms. Derenak Kaufax said.
The school district, which is also named after Lee, a Confederate general, did not have policies and regulations in place for a name change, Ms. Derenak Kaufax said. The district also wanted to have a robust conversation about the possible new school name with the community and students, she said.
Kimberly Boateng, 17, last year’s student body representative on the Fairfax County School Board, said she had rallied her class and lobbied her peers for the name change.
“Initially, the name didn’t really affect me,” said Ms. Boateng, who will be a senior this fall at the future John R. Lewis High School. “Most people don’t call it the Robert E. Lee School, we just called it Lee because it was embarrassing. We always had to explain that we aren’t the name.”
The board’s new student representative, Nathan Onibudo, 17, said that he was happy the long process of renaming the school was finally over and that he could be proud of the man his school is named after.
“The name on the school building is something each student had to walk under, and you want that name to be someone they can aspire to be,” Mr. Onibudo said. “That person should be someone that a student can embody.”
Mr. Lewis’s lifetime of activism began when he was a student, demonstrating against voter disenfranchisement and Jim Crow laws. At 21, Mr. Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders who traveled across the South to protest segregation. When he was 23, Mr. Lewis was the sixth person to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his landmark “I Have A Dream” speech. Mr. Lewis, a Democrat, was elected to Congress in 1986 and represented Georgia’s Fifth District until his death on July 17.
Ms. Derenak Kaufax said she felt that Mr. Lewis’s legacy aligned much more closely with the school’s values than Lee’s did. She called Mr. Lewis an icon for starting “good trouble” and for making people understand his ideas in such a way that they could eventually come together. That was a legacy that the school needed and wanted, she said.
“I wanted a name where everybody who walked through those doors felt safe and supported,” added Ms. Derenak Kaufax, who said that the school is very diverse. “I really believe that a school has to make the students and staff feel comfortable and the community proud, and none of those things existed with the name Robert E. Lee.”
Ms. Boateng said she had been eager to graduate next June but for now is more looking forward to simply walking into her school again.
She has imagined returning to school and seeing Mr. Lewis’s name on the front of the building. “The feeling of knowing I go to John R. Lewis High is amazing,” she said.
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