With this month’s meeting to discuss what to name the new high school postponed due to concerns about the Coronavirus, now seems to be a good time to take a look back at early November and see just how that particular meeting went. Featuring Washington & Lee Alumni, this meeting actually had varying opinions on whether a new name should be chosen or the old one should remain, which was a stark contrast to previous meetings, where calls for a new name were almost universal. Each meeting was run by a pair of facilitators along with Superintendent Dr. Michael Perry; in the case of the November meeting, it was School Board Chairman Ralph Fallin and Board Member Iris Lane.
The first question from Chairman Fallin was, “If a name is picked and it is not Washington & Lee, what can be done to honor your legacy as W&L graduates?” Barbara Jean Jones, one of the attending alumni, provided an answer, pointing to what had been done with the A.T. Johnson Building further up Route 3.
“If Washington & Lee is not chosen, then I’d like to have a museum room at W&L, just like at A.T. Johnson,” she explained, “to house things that had something to do with the school at that site. That way, if we go with another name, then we’ll still have honored our history. We honored it at A.T. Johnson, and we should honor it at W&L.”
Avery Baylor, another attending alumnus, was in full agreement, stating, “I don’t have a problem with W&L remaining as it is now, but with the new school, I think there should be a new name. That being said, I graduated from W&L, and so did my four daughters, so we have history there too. We weren’t around when they named the building, but we accepted it and still do, and we’re hoping that it doesn’t just get torn down and turned into a parking lot.”
Ken Chatham was among those opposed to a new name, having spoken on the matter over a year ago at a school board meeting alongside several members of the Westmoreland Ruritan Club. He went into detail about the Lees, Robert in particular, looking to clear up the record, so to speak.
“I think if we set the standard for George Washington and Robert E. Lee that high for naming any building in Westmoreland County in the future, I think it’d be very difficult for anyone to have a building named after them,” he stated. “I know that the slavery and race issues have been brought up and tossed around. I’m not sure if the real situation as it existed has been totally presented. Lee never purchased a slave, but rather inherited five of them, and four were already ‘rented out’ to work at other plantations. Robert himself never owned a plantation to have slaves; he was in the military for 32 years of his life and stationed in Texas.
“If we go forward to the Civil War itself, even the North did not consider it to be about slavery at the time. When the Virginia legislature voted 2 to 1 to secede from the Union, both the North and the South wanted Lee to lead their forces, and he turned down the Union. If there was one person in the whole civil war that should be recognized by both the North and South, it would be Robert E. Lee. He realized that if he led the Union army, he would have to invade Virginia and Westmoreland County. He refused to be in a position where he would have to invade his home county, and resigned a 32-year military career in the military so that he would not have to invade Virginia.
“I don’t think this should be divisive, I think he’s the one thing that could bring us together. Several months ago, I spoke to the School Board about how I did not like the ‘cancel culture’ that had been going on, and that we should be inclusive rather than exclusive.”
Terry Brockwell also spoke up for keeping the name, stating, “If it stays Washington & Lee, well Robert E. Lee was just one of many. One was the Governor of Virginia, two brothers signed the Declaration of Independence, a group of Lees got the Leestown resolutions to help us become our own country. The Lee family was such a large part of the founding of this country. The Lee part in Washington & Lee can stand for all of the founding Lees in this county. This may be a rural county, but there is a lot of history. If the name stayed the same, it could be explained why Lee is there. The whole family helped form this country.”
Lane put out the next question, asking, “What do you think is most important when it comes to naming the facility so that it is inclusive?”
This time, it was Rosemary Mahan’s turn to speak up: “We need to consider if our alumni that had helped in the past would be willing to consider themselves to be part of the school if it had a new name as opposed to their old alma mater. A lot of us have gone through that school under that name, and I don’t think any of us feel any less devoted to our school because of the name, though there are some who might, and thus withdraw support. You can’t just throw away almost a hundred years’ worth of school.”
Barbara Jean Jones spoke up afterwards, bringing attention to the costs that would be incurred as well.
“The expense of changing everything; every uniform, every logo, every piece of stationary, everything; we are not a rich county,” she stated. “I’d rather see money that would be spent on renaming the school be spent on our children, educating and feeding them. I don’t want to see the name changed, but if you do change it, I’ll support you. I just look at the cost involved; we didn’t have enough money to finish everything that the new school is going to want off the bat, but it just worries me that the taxpayers would see money spent at this time that we might not need to spend.”
Afterwards, Chairman Fallin asked what might be done to help bring people together once the name was selected, to which Mahan responded, “If you select a new name, then keep the old name on the old building and put a museum there that would honor the students that came from there. When you lose the name of your alma mater, you eradicate those students and their memories, trophies, and championships, as far as I’m concerned.”
It was Baylor that spoke up next, noting, “If the name is changed, and I would like to see that, we could bring some of the history down to the new school. And if we go with the museum idea, we could keep the name on the old building and have room for all of the history of both those names and the building. We’d have a place for someone to go and see the history of the whole county.”
The discussion continued along these lines for the rest of the hour. At the end, Chairman Fallin addressed those that had gathered, stating he knew full well that regardless of the name that was picked, it would not please everyone in the county.
“We know that not everyone is going to agree with us when we pick a name for the High School,” he said, “but we do need for everyone to support our decision so that we can focus on the educational needs of our students. We have to provide exceptional educational opportunities, and we have every reason to be excited for the construction of our new high school and the opportunities it will offer. I almost live out there. It’s going to be a beautiful school, a benefit to education and our community. Many of us cannot wait until it is completed.”
The slated date for what Chairman Fallin called “substantial completion” is around February 2022, with full completion being two months afterwards, resulting in the whole thing opening in the fall of 2022. As of the time of this writing, the next name meeting has been postponed until a later date to be announced.