Next month, Barack Obama Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia will open its doors for the first time.
Well, not really. The school, originally named J.E.B. Stuart Elementary, opened in 1922.
It was to J.E.B. Stuart that I walked on the first day of the sixth grade. I had attended the segregated Albert V. Norrell Elementary School for the 1st through the 5th grade (the highest grade at that school). Even though Stuart had grades 1-6, and my sixth-grade year was well after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, for me, the 6th grade was the first year that the city fathers of Richmond, Virginia allowed me into a white school.
Both Norrell and Stuart were within easy walking distance of my home, but Stuart was a little closer. I lived two blocks south of Brookland Park Boulevard. Stuart was two blocks north. Brookland Park Boulevard was the dividing line, separating black Richmond from white Richmond. The neighborhoods on both sides looked the same—the same beautiful mature trees, the same mixture of architectural styles of houses—but we knew when we crossed the boulevard, it was not the same. While the street itself was rather ordinary, it represented a significant cultural divide. We were foreigners entering the all-white community where our school was located.
As an 11-year-old, I didn’t think anything about who J.E.B. Stuart (a Civil War general for the Confederate states) was just as I hadn’t thought a lot about the eponym of my former school, Albert V. Norrell (an African-American educator whose granddaughter, Faithe, was one of my first-grade classmates). The names of the schools were just, well, the names of the schools.
In recent years, as the racial consciousness of Americans has grown, how the Civil War is reflected in our day-to-day lives has become an important, and somewhat contentious, topic.
There is no question that for over a century, through many mechanisms, heroic status was given to the leaders of the Confederacy. Literally, looking at the plethora of enormous statues memorializing them across America, and especially in my hometown, gives these men a mythic place in our country’s cultural narrative. And when that fact is coupled with the reality of few monuments or memorials that acknowledge the suffering of enslaved Africans or that celebrate the many contributions of black Americans, you can see why the existence of the statues and the relevance of names is coming into question.
Last month, based on input from the community and from students, J.E.B. Stuart’s name was changed to Barack Obama Elementary. Good, right? Hmmm….. I certainly don’t want to celebrate J.E.B. Stuart and I never did. I do wish to honor President Obama, but it does feel a little strange that now I will tell folks that I attended Obama Elementary. Why is it strange? Because he would have been a one-year-old when I attended that school. Weird, right?
As I thought about it, my first thought was that long-established schools, wanting to change their names, should select non-current historical figures or just something else that is meaningful to the community. J.E.B. Stuart Elementary could have become Azalea Elementary maybe, recognizing the beautiful, spring shrubbery in the Richmond area. Or even Northside Elementary after the section of town in which the school is located, or perhaps be named for another historical figure like Albert V. Norrell, the name of the now-closed, black elementary school. Following that practice would mean that you wouldn’t end up with this peculiar time warp feeling that challenges me just a little right now.
What something is named does matter, having an unconscious effect on some, but great impact for others. This year, 96.4% of the children attending this school will be children of color with 91.8% being African-American. I know that the parents who hold their hands as they walk into Barack Obama Elementary on September 4th will feel a sense of pride. That pride will flow into the children as they learn about the leader for whom their school is named. And on those rare occasions when called on to mention my elementary school experience, the new name will catch on my tongue, at least at first, but I, too, am proud to have attended the only school in Richmond, Virginia named for the first African-American president. Time warp be damned.
Update: When we — Tamara Lucas Copeland, Jeanne Johnson Petties and Debbie Johnson Riddick — learned that Obama Elementary T-shirts were available, we immediately ordered ours. Unfortunately, the promotion has ended, but, who knows, it might come back. Add your name to the waiting list at http://www.bonfire.com/barack-obama-elementary-school=1/