A beloved school security guard who saw the best in students and believed in second chances. A nationally renowned anti-racist scholar and author who is also a local alum. A slave girl who was wounded in the First Battle of Manassas in an act of bravery. A local Black couple who helped integrate Prince William County schools and the U.S. Marine Corps.
People who embodied those descriptions – specifically the late Arthur Reed, Ibram X. Kendi, Lucinda Griffin and Celestine and Carroll Braxton, respectively -- were among a list of more than 20 names suggested during in the first community meeting held Monday, June 22, to select new names for Stonewall Jackson High School and Stonewall Middle School.
The Prince William School Board is renaming the schools, both located in Manassas, amid nationwide protests and calls to address systemic racism following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed May 25 when a Minneapolis police officer pinned Floyd’s neck to the pavement with his knee, suffocating him as a bystander filmed it on a cell phone.
Superintendent Steven Walts asked the school board on June 5 to initiate the process of renaming the schools as part of his “action plan to combat racism” in local schools.
The school board complied and announced a one-week timeline in which to collect public input and select new names for the schools, both of which were named for Thomas Stonewall Jackson, a Confederate general who earned his nickname “Stonewall” during the First Battle of Manassas in 1861.
Stonewall Middle School was originally Stonewall Jackson High School when the school opened in 1962. The school became Stonewall Middle when the current high school opened with the same name about 10 years later.
About 70 speakers signed up to speak during Monday’s meeting, a number that prompted school division officials to add a second public hearing, which will be held virtually on Thursday, June 25, at 7 p.m.
Participants included current and former students of Stonewall Jackson High School as well as teachers, alumni, county residents and a man named Warren Christian, who said he was Jackson’s great-great-grandson.
Christian said he and his brother penned an open letter to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney about three years ago, asking that a statue of Jackson be removed from the city. Christian suggested that Stonewall Jackson High School be renamed for Ibram X. Kendi, a 2000 graduate of Stonewall Jackson High School whom Christian called “the pre-eminent scholar” of race and racism in the U.S.
Kendi, whose name was Ibram H. Rogers when he attended Stonewall Jackson H.S., went on to earn a doctorate degree and write five books, including “Stamped from the beginning,” which won the National Book Award in 2016, and “How to be an Anti-Racist,” which he wrote while battling stage 4 colon cancer in 2018. Kendi taught at American University and in July will become the founding director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.
“Honestly, I think it’s an embarrassment that the name has lasted this long,” Christian said. “To have a majority Black and Latinx school with the name of someone who fought to enslave their ancestors is shameful and should have been changed a long time ago.”
Several students and alumni also expressed support for naming the school after Kendi. Other students and recent graduates suggested naming the school for Reed, a former school security guard who died in 2018.
One student said Reed had a “warm smile and a welcoming personality” and “served as a barrier between students and bad behavior.”
Stonewall Jackson High School math teacher Charles Ronco called Reed an “angel of a man” and noted the school division has named only a few schools for African Americans, which he called “a reckoning we seriously have to consider.”
Several spoke in favor of naming the schools for the Braxtons, a local Black couple who were civil rights trailblazers. Monique Braxton, the couple’s daughter, said her late mother was hired as a teacher in Prince William to help integrate the school division and would go on to teach for more than 30 years before retiring from Marsteller Middle. Her father, Carroll Braxton, who is 96, was a Montford Point Marine, meaning he was one of the first Black Marines to serve in the corps, a group that trained in the 1940s at segregated Montford Point, outside Jacksonville, N.C.
Still others pushed to name the school for Griffin, a slave girl who was injured on the battlefield during the First Battle of Manassas, or James Robinson, a freed slave who eventually bought a home on what is now the Manassas Battlefield and became one of the wealthiest freed blacks in the Manassas area in the 19th century.
Ben Kim, a rising senior at Stonewall Jackson H.S. who serves as a student representative on the school board, said he personally favored Reed or Commonwealth High School but added: “We heard a lot of good suggestions tonight.”
Only two speakers said they objected to renaming the schools.
School board members serving on the schools’ “naming committee” include School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef, Brentsville District Representative Adele Jackson, Gainesville District Representative Jen Wall and Coles District Representative Lisa Zargarpur.
At close of the meeting, all said they’d learned a lot about local history from the presenters and noted the difficult job of choosing the new names. The school board is scheduled to vote approve new names for both schools on Monday, June 29, also via a virtual meeting.
“I have to say that I am astounded about the lack of knowledge I have about my own home,” said Zargarpur, who grew up in Manassas and attended Osbourn Park High School. “… These names … were not part of the history I grew up with, and it’s evident to me that we need to do a better job [of teaching local history].”
The school board has not yet discussed how much changing the schools’ names will cost or where it will find the money. But Lateef said no money will be taken from any of the renovation projects currently slated for the nearly 50-year-old high school, which include $1.6 million in planned upgrades to stadium lighting and the concession building and a planned $1 million renovation to the school's office area.
“I don’t want anyone out there to believe that the money it will take to do this will take away from anything we want to do at Stonewall,” Lateef said.
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com