To be or not to be Washington-Lee


Victor O'Neill

Freshman Anna Erskine participating in Girls’ Cross Country

The school has been discussing the possibility of changing its name for over 16 years. The name “Washington-Lee” is a tribute to two famous Virginians: George Washington and Robert E. Lee. The “Lee” part of the name is concerning, however, as Robert E. Lee is a well known Confederate general from Virginia. Some believe a name change is unnecessary and ridiculous, arguing that a name change will cost taxpayer money. Therefore, it’s important that the issue is understood before any action is taken.

Those who support changing the name “Washington-Lee” argue that Robert E. Lee stood with the Confederacy, and by doing so stood for white supremacy. Thus, by honoring him, we are honoring his racist ideals. There is a difference between remembering our Confederate past and celebrating it. This opinion is shared by students and parents alike. “I think that a name change is necessary in our progression as a school,” senior and president of the Black Lives Matter club Leonie Alder, said. “We shouldn’t be celebrating a man who fought for slavery, no matter how much ‘state pride’ he had.”

Many who oppose changing the name argue that while the Confederacy was in the wrong, those fighting for them, specifically Robert E. Lee, were simply fighting for their state and home. However, others disagree with this argument. “Many people say he is just a product of his environment, he was raised to put his state first,” Alder said. “In my eyes, this does not excuse his actions. It was a different time, but we can’t forget that many men and women recognized how immoral slavery was and decided to be on the right side of history.”

Lee’s views on slavery were ambiguous, as evidenced by a letter he wrote to his wife in 1856, five years before the Civil War. “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country,” Lee wrote. However, he also believed slavery was “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race,” and that the “painful discipline they [slaves] are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction.”

A common argument against renaming legacies of the Confederacy is that many other prominent Americans owned slaves in the past, including George Washington. Also, they argue that it’s unclear when the renaming would stop.  However, pointing out that Washington’s racism was on par with Lee’s isn’t an effective argument. “Washington had many faults, like owning slaves, but I’m not opposed to his name as part of our school name,” Alder said. “Unlike Lee, he was a founding father who played an important role in the formation of this country, while Lee was a part of the reason this country was torn apart.”

Furthermore, it’s important to understand the difference between acknowledging the tough parts of America’s history and celebrating them. Removing Lee’s name from our school isn’t denying that slavery or the Civil War ever happened, it’s an effort to stop the glorification of the Confederacy. “Changing our school’s name would mean condemning a white supremacist, not erasing history.” Alder said.

Changing the name is important to representing the ideals of the community. “It [a name change] would solidify the core, primarily liberal, values that much of Arlington has.” The school’s Young Democrats Club said in a statement.  “It represents the amazing community of Arlington that supports diversity and cares for positive influences for future generations.”

As the school represents the community, many citizens and parents whose children no longer attend the school are concerned as well. “I think that the school should not honor Robert E. Lee because I don’t believe that he was loyal to the country,” Ben Vernia, parent to former students, said. “I don’t think that he’s a good role model, and I think that there are other people far more deserving than Robert E. Lee.”

Mr. Vernia proposed more deserving role models, such as Richard Henry Lee and George Thomas. Richard Henry Lee, Robert E. Lee’s father, was elected to attend the first Continental Congress, then served in Congress during the Revolutionary War. In 1783, he was elected president of Congress, and went on to become the first senator of Virginia. He’s an important part of Virginia’s history, and doesn’t have the controversy following him that Lee does.

George Thomas was another Virginian who was a contemporary of Lee. He was born to a upper-class slave-holding family, and was seen as a potential general for the Confederates at the beginning of the Civil War. His family sided with the Confederates, and as a West Point graduate, many of his college peers also fought with the Confederates. Despite all this, Thomas became a general for the Union. According to the Civil War Trust, he was willing to oppose his family and state to fight for what he felt was right, even though his bravery created a tear in his relationship with his family that never healed.

Many argue that changing the name would be expensive and difficult, however if certain steps are taken, the transition could be relatively painless. When considering new names for the school, maintaining the “L” in the name may be helpful to ease into the change. “It would enable the school to maintain many of our logos, uniforms, supplies, etc.” Principal Gregg Robertson said, “It may also be a nice compromise—because as we all know, the school is very often referred to as ‘W-L.’”

What it comes down to, though, is that students are a priority, so whatever makes students feel comfortable and accepted is what the school should strive to do. “To the Black Lives Matter Club, [a name change] would mean that the school is showing that the black students matter just as much as everyone else.” Alder said, “It would mean that black students no longer have to be educated in an institution that hangs portraits of a man that risked his life to oppress our people.”


“George Thomas.” Civil War Trust, Civil War Trust,


“Signers of the Declaration of Independence: Richard Henry Lee.”, Independence Hall Association,


Fortin, Jacey. “What Robert E. Lee Wrote to The Times About Slavery in 1858.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Aug. 2017,