The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.
After a summer of confronting racism, a flood of promises of justice came from state governments. This set the stage for Kadija Ismail and Kimberly Boateng, two young teens, to finally have their school renamed in honor of John R. Lewis—in a state with the second most Confederate-named schools in the U.S.
If you were to meet anyone from Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, Virginia any time before June of 2020, they’d tell you they go to “Lee.” The full name was never used, but its shadow hung over the community, a division of one of the largest school systems in the country, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS).
After a summer where the U.S. confronted systemic racism, a flood of promises regarding justice came from state governments. This set the stage for Kadija Ismail and Kimberly Boateng, two young Black teens, to finally have their school renamed in honor of activist and Representative John R. Lewis, in a state with the second most Confederate-named schools in the U.S.
The first time Boateng knew something needed to be done about her school’s name was the winter of her sophomore year. As she stood alone in the school lobby after dance practice, she stared at a large painting of Lee that hung in the darkened hallway. A plaque said the art was donated by The Daughters of the Confederacy, a Neo-Confederacy group.
“The portrait made me pretty uncomfortable considering I had just recently learned the depth of the atrocities of the Confederacy,” Boaten said. It wasn’t fitting to her that the 81 percent non-white school was named after a man who led an army for evils of slavery, who Boateng labeled a “traitor.”
Ismail’s awakening came when she was a freshman. She was wearing her marching band uniform with the school name emblazoned on the left shoulder when the Black woman to whom she was speaking said that she would not donate to the school as long as it was named after a Confederate general. The mood of the moment immediately shifted.
“Our diversity, our student body, we don’t represent that,” Ismail said. “Having that cognitive dissonance of ‘this is who your school is, but this is who the people are’ was really visible at that one moment.”
Boateng and Ismail eventually found each other through the school’s NAACP program. They said their former principal often brushed them off but when Alfonso Smith took over the role in 2019, encouraging the movement, they knew they had a chance.
The teens pressed the school board about the issue—but it wouldn’t introduce the name change, even with Boateng as the county’s student representative. Their argument was that they didn’t see a “groundswell of advocacy.”
In their low-income community, where residents work multiple jobs and long hours, it’s impossible for people to attend public hearings, Boateng says. Despite the perceived lack of community support, Tamara Derenak Kaufax, FCPS’s Lee District representative, initially introduced the name change at a February board meeting but the vote was delayed because of COVID. Through a spokesperson, Derenak Kaufax said that she wanted to hold the vote to prevent divisiveness within the community during the pandemic.
Eventually, the president of the Fairfax NAACP, Sean Perryman, stepped in to apply pressure to the school board using a social media campaign, his political connections and the lobbying power of the state-level NAACP. In a phone interview, Perryman emphasized the importance of the teens’ advocacy and made it clear that “Democrats did not champion this issue.”
In June, with social justice in the forefront of the minds of Virginians after the murder of George Floyd, Ismail and Boateng published a powerful open letter through the NAACP that addressed FCPS and demanded immediate change and a petition that gained thousands of supporters.
With eyes in the community and the weight of the social situation in the nation on them, the school board finally acted. Debates regarding the name and funding continued to swirl. Boateng said the Board has to answer to the whole of their constituency, which is a blend of diverse homes and older white Virginians. This meant the school was almost not named after anyone. She said, “It’s unfortunate that School Board members kind of answer to those people. I’m pretty sure that if Mr. Lewis had not died, we would be Legacy High School right now.”
Now Ismail appreciated that there’s a great deal of acceptance of the name as the new school year begins.
“Hope,” she said, “You can almost feel it.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Dec. 15 for clarity, and the timeline of the school board’s initial action on the name change has been included.
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