Outside Charlottesville, a small Virginia town must deal with Lee and its legacy

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STAUNTON, Va. — A big crowd, maybe around 2,000, gathered in Gypsy Hill Park to support one of the nation’s largest tributes to Robert E. Lee. A few hundred more showed up to voice their approval for another area monument to Turner Ashby, a lesser known Confederate Army officer.

But here in Staunton, removed 35 miles to the east and just two weeks after violent clashes rocked Charlottesville, there were no protests. The only violence was the officially sanctioned crashing of shoulder pads as the R.E. Lee High Leemen rolled to a season-opening victory over the Turner Ashby High School Black Knights.

As plans to remove Confederate statues and monuments move forward across Virginia and the rest of the country, here in Staunton, citizens may finally be forced to come to grips with its history and love affair with the local high school.

Like many Southern towns, high school sports are a rallying point for Staunton residents of all colors and creeds. The name of the school has only occasionally surfaced as a mild controversy — letters to the editor here and there — but over the past few decades it’s mostly been ignored. After Lee won the state title in boys basketball last March, signs of congratulations hung on businesses all over town.

Students and alumni simply love the Leemen, and they leave it at that.

“It’s not an issue that really comes up a lot here,” Sam LaClare, a recent Lee graduate and assistant football coach. “There are other issues at times, but nobody really talks about the name.”

Staunton is one of Virginia’s hidden gems. A city of about 25,000, it’s a destination for lovers of the arts, architecture and outdoor recreation. Downtown is filled with fine restaurants and boutiques. The American Shakespeare Center draws visitors from all over the world.

Some of the nation’s best young classical musicians come to Mary Baldwin University every summer and the African-American Heritage Festival has brought thousands to Gypsy Hill Park, in the parking lot next to the football stadium, each fall for nearly three decades.

Like anywhere else, Staunton isn’t completely devoid of racial tension. Last winter, a middle school teacher’s misguided attempt at a lesson on slavery caused a stir. But for the most part both black and white residents agree Staunton stands as a relatively good example of race relations.

It’s also a cultural oasis in an otherwise rural part of the Commonwealth. Reminders of its crucial role in U.S. history are everywhere.

The Woodrow Wilson birthplace museum and presidential library sit downtown and a few blocks away the luxurious Stonewall Jackson Hotel towers above the city.

The Frontier Culture Museum captures a time when the Shenandoah Valley marked the edge of colonial civilization and the Fifth Virginia Regiment Band, also known as the Stonewall Brigade, has played continuously for 162 years.

And, of course, in the middle of it all is Robert E. Lee High School.

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Antebellum Staunton, much like today, was a small, but cultured Southern city. The town was on the cutting edge in the fields of architecture and mental health and a bastion of education for women and the disabled. Citizens of Staunton were overwhelmingly opposed to secession before violence broke out at Fort Sumter and it became clear a Civil War was unavoidable.

After the war, Staunton became a shining example of an ideal Reconstruction. It boasted a relatively prosperous economy as farmers on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains had never been as reliant on slave labor as their coastal counterparts. Industry thrived with mills and factories sprouting in the bustling transportation hub. Churches and public schools quickly opened in the black community.

By the time Ulysses S. Grant visited the city in the first year of his presidency, Staunton residents stood outside his hotel and cheered while the Stonewall Brigade Band, whose members had marched against the North with General Jackson, serenaded the Union hero.

In the early 1920s, officials began planning for a new city high school. Opened in 1926, the original Lee High building was a marvel of Colonial Revival architecture that would later be designated a historic landmark by both the state and federal governments.

At the time Lee High was conceived, there were still citizens alive who could remember the Confederate Army defending the city from Northern troops intent on destroying and looting. Perhaps in Staunton, more than most places, the excuse that the Civil War wasn’t just about slavery made just a little more sense — or, at least, wasn’t entirely revisionist history.

There’s a subtle difference between Lee High and Turner Ashby in neighboring Rockingham County, which opened in the 1950s. The latter was pointedly named by white school board members as the Civil Rights movement gained footing.

But the city of Staunton has also passed on prime opportunities to rename the school; when it was integrated more than 50 years ago and again when it moved to a new building in 1983.

Even as Staunton has modernized in many ways, it’s shown a tendency to ignore the uglier parts of its history.

Confederates are recognized without much mention of slavery or treason. Discussions of Wilson often focus more on World War I and the League of Nations, and less on his vile racist policies or how his praise of the film The Birth of a Nation helped reignite the Ku Klux Klan.

But as the events in Charlottesville literally hit close to home, there soon may be no more avoiding the topic of the local high school’s name. The News-Leader, the local newspaper, acknowledged in an editorial that keeping the name suddenly became “tougher.”

“Until the stuff in Charlottesville, I don’t think anyone minded,” another Lee High alumnus, an African-American who asked not to be identified, said. “I didn’t think about it a lot. It’s like Lee and Staunton are one and the same, for sports and stuff especially.

“But now, if people want to change the name, maybe we should.”

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The meanings of words and symbols can evolve. The swastika had nothing to do with hate or xenophobia before the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s. Nicknames such as Jayhawker and Hoosier were originally meant to be derisive, but soon adopted with pride by people in Kansas and Indiana.

Devin Williams, an African-American senior running back was still in uniform Friday night, beaming after scoring four touchdowns.

“Putting on a Lee jersey…,” he said, pausing for a moment. “It means everything to me. To get out here in front on all these people and show them what we can do together, as a team. They know what we’re all about.”

The clash in Charlottesville was a demonstration of pure and inexcusable hate. But it only takes a short drive over a mountain they call Afton to get a sense that the roots of so many problems are more complicated, yet manageable with open minds.

Perhaps it’s possible that after decades of representing local perseverance, with students of all colors proudly wearing Lee across their chest, maybe in Staunton the name has taken on a different connotation.

But knowing the hurt, history and violence any kind of Confederate celebration can evoke, perhaps the better question is whether that really makes a difference anymore.