Following the newly named John R. Lewis High School, students are now calling on Fairfax County Public Schools to change the name of another school named after a Confederate figure.
Sidney Lanier Middle School, dedicated to Confederate soldier and poet Sidney Lanier, has been up for debate for the last three years, according to City of Fairfax School Board Chairman Carolyn Pitches. However, Pitches said the conversation around the name change only started picking up traction last summer.
“We had started to really have conversations last summer, and then obviously this summer we are taking action,” Pitches said.
As junior class president at JLHS, Amanda Hurst has been working to help keep her class connected as classes began online. But Hurst said she wants to do more than plan prom and make t-shirt designs.
“That's my job, but I feel like my job is also to do more than that with the platform I have,” Hurst said.
So she gathered together a group of eight students from her class, including herself, to speak at last week’s school board meeting to advocate for changing SLMS’s name. Each student prepared a speech for the hearing.
“We can't erase the past, but we can make changes,” JLHS junior Sambhavy Chapagain said to the Fairfax County Times. “And everyone should see that by having Lanier as a middle school's name is repeating history by bringing a racist past into the present and future.”
SLMS officially opened its doors in 1960, in the midst of the civil rights movement, and was named after Lanier in 1959.
“Fairfax is a very diverse community, and there's no place for racism,” JLHS junior Siham Niori said. Niori said that the city naming SLMS after Lanier during the civil rights movement was a direct attack on the Black community.
The students say it’s important to stand up for younger students who may not understand the meaning of their school’s name.
“I feel like [SLMS students] should be represented by someone who they can look up to and be inspired by, instead of being represented by someone who didn't even believe in equal rights,” Chapagain said.
As the students spoke in favor of changing SLMS’s name, Fairfax County NAACP Education Chair Sujatha Hampton tweeted her support.
“All these beautiful students from John R. Lewis HS testifying before Fairfax City School Board to change the name of Lanier MS is something to behold,” Hampton tweeted. “These kids are organized. No joke. So proud of them. They did not come to play.”
Several students have come up with alternative names to Sidney Lanier that they feel better represent the student body.
Two names the students have concieved are after Mildred Loving, a Black Virginian who fought Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage and won, and César Chávez, an American Latino union leader and activist.
“All of those are great potential names for Lanier that reflect the values and morals that we want to present to our community,” JLHS junior Livia Spinale said.
JLHS junior Paola Gonzalez said that changing the name will help people of color feel more welcomed.
“I see a school name as something very important as they represent every single student... and a great opportunity to honor somebody who deserves to be honored,” Gonzalez said.
To continue their activism past the hearing, the students created a group at JLHS called ‘Our Future’ to advocate for social justice.
“It is very important for students to be activists because people don't know how you feel unless you express yourself,” JLHS junior Rakeb Musse said.
JLHS was renamed in late July after the late Congressman John R. Lewis, who was a civil rights advocate during the civil rights movement and passed away in July. Originally the school was named after commander of the Confederate army Robert E. Lee.
“There was always that shame, having his name associated with a place where I'm supposed to be learning and growing and becoming an adult and really shaping my view of the world,” Spinale said. “That was always so embarrassing. So now our school name represents someone who was just so powerful and important and on the right side of history.”
For some students, such as JLHS junior Negest Fisseha, changing a school’s name can have a big impact.
“Being a student, specifically a Black student, at a school where the name is of someone who didn't even think you're human,” Fisseha said. “I had to wear Robert E. Lee on my back for two years while playing basketball.”
As the school board moves to vote on changing SLMS’s name, Pitches said that she is considering all public commentary up until the vote. However, she said that she is most interested in the student perspective.
“I firmly believe that our schools are for the students,” Pitches said. “And I want every student and faculty and staff member who walks through the doors of any of our schools, I want them to feel welcomed, valued and to have a sense of belonging and equality.”
The Fairfax City School Board will vote on changing SLMS’s name on Monday, Sept. 14.