Last week, the Westmoreland County School Board held its final meeting for picking out a name for the new high school and closed its online survey. This final meeting, held last Tuesday at 5 p.m., focused on interested community members and civic groups, and was presided over by Iris Lane and the Board’s chairman, Ralph Fallin. While most of those that attended the meeting pushed for a new name, the survey apparently had the largest proportion of responders, 46%, requesting that Washington & Lee High School carry over, while the rest of the responders were split between different names.
At the meeting, meanwhile, it was another case of most of those at the meeting requesting a more generic name for the new high school, such as Westmoreland County High School, which they noted is what just about every other neighboring county has done with their high schools.
Larry Hinson was the only one that spoke at the meeting in favor of keeping it as Washington & Lee High School, noting that this particular county had the distinction of birthing George Washington and Robert E. Lee, as well as plenty of other Lees.
“The problem I have with putting a new name on the new high school is that we’re the only county that can say we birthed the father of our country. We should be honored to have so much rich history in Westmoreland County. The other counties can’t touch us on that. People come here on tours of Washington’s Birthplace and Stratford Hall, and the name ‘Washington and Lee’ just rolls right off the tongue.”
Gladys Johnson of the NAACP was among those who pushed for naming the building Westmoreland County High School, characterizing Washington and Lee as “old white slave owners” and that it was “time to let things go”. Another attendee, Marion Ashton, stated that “Naming it for the county takes in the culture and the whole county, and it would not detract from the persons who graduated from Washington and Lee. It would expand the branding and the history of the county.”
Frieda Johnson, one of the folks who runs the A.T. Johnson museum, in turn pointed out that back in June of last year, there were at least 215 schools named for people tied to the Confederacy, and since then, 23 names have changed.
There are plenty of buildings named for General Lee, with others for General Jackson, as well as Jefferson Davis and several others, whom Johnson characterized as “men who waged war to maintain slavery.”
“All of this concerns me. Yes, it’s our history, but one of the things our governor is concerned about is that not all of our history has been taught in our schools. All of this speaks to the identity of the children who are educated in our schools. We also know that the Confederate flag is on the brick wall at Washington & Lee. This plays havoc in the mind of children that go to the school, and tampers with the value that one brings when walking into the entrance of the building.”
Debate like this continued for much of the evening, spirited but respectful. In the end, the School Board will make its decision on the name at its next meeting, which is on the 25th of this month. Whether the choice they pick for the building’s name brings the people of the county together or not remains to be seen.