The weight of the ink on her cross country uniform was almost imperceptible, but it dragged Julia Clark down when she raced.
For three years, since the first time she walked into her high school as a freshman, the building taunted her. J.E.B. Stuart High School, named for a Confederate general.
But as a senior, wearing the simple J of the renamed Justice High School Wolves, she felt something she hadn’t for her entire track and cross country career up to that point – unmitigated pride.
“I felt like a weight was lifted,” said Clark, who graduated in 2019 and was a catalyst in her school’s name change, which was effective in 2018.
Nobody knows when their Fairfax County neighbors, the Lancers, will race next, but when they do more than a few cross country runners expect at least a little boost from dropping the name Robert E. Lee High School, in favor of John R. Lewis. Arlington County’s Washington-Lee High School became Washington-Liberty in 2019. The Prince William County School Board recently renamed Stonewall Jackson High School Unity Reed High School.
“We were ashamed to sometimes say the name of our school to other people,” said Lee graduate Amaria White, now a freshman at Northwestern University. “That’s why we were known as ‘Lee” by pretty much everyone in our district.”
But generally, White said the name didn’t affect her two years of running there after moving from California.
“I think everyone in the school is pretty culturally aware and even though we know that the name was king of a dark and looming part of American history, we never let it affect our school spirit or sports or anything we did at the school involving extracurricular activities,” White said.
Lewis senior Kathryn Moran said the school did have a reputation, though. A symptom, perhaps, of being named after a figure on the losing side of a war.
“We were mainly known for having bad sports teams,” she said. “This is a chance for a fresh start.”
Moran went to see Lewis lie instate at the U.S. Capitol after he died in July, right when Fairfax County Public Schools announced the renaming.
Lewis Coach Chris Johnston was excited about the change.
“I have never heard anyone on the team really speak out against the old name, but it was clearly on their minds and there was definitely a sense that it was time for a change,” he said. “Lee and his legacy are totally incompatible with the composition of the Lewis student body and the way the kids treat each other,” noting the school’s racial composition.
Last year, 85 percent of Lewis High School was non-white.
Clark had a much different experience while at Stuart.
“I immediately felt uncomfortable,” as a freshman, she said. “I didn’t realize other students felt like I did for a few weeks.”
Soon after, she joined the Students for Change group as its youngest member, the only member who would be around for Justice High School, named after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
“I led education efforts, gave interviews, petitioned the school board and went to meetings about this,” she said. “It was ridiculous that a man who fought for slavery and white supremacy was representing a student body that was majority-minority.”
Particularly galling, Clark said, was the mural in the school’s weight room, which depicted a muscular caricature of Stuart.
“I couldn’t focus in the weight room, and I eventually started finding reasons not to lift,” she said. “White athletes could train without having to think of anything but their personal success, while I had to juggle thinking of my accomplishments and white supremacy in every single space I was in. That was not who we should aspire to be.”
While she supported her fellow student-athletes, she stuck to cheering them individually, never shouting her school’s name or their nickname, the Raiders.
“I knew it would make my family’s hearts break if they heard me,” she said. “Every time I’d PR, every time I’d win my heat, every time I’d win a race, I’d hear my name and then Stuart’s, my happiness would dim a little. Nothing I did would stand alone, it would always stand with this terrible, horrible man and give more praise to a school that honored a white supremacist who fought to keep my ancestors in chains.”
Clark, now a sophomore at the University of North Carolina, faced opposition and criticism during and after her campaign, including incidents in class as a senior when students yelled racial slurs in her company. But the effort was worth it.
When Justice traveled to the Penn Relays, Clark and her teammates got to debut their new identity to the track world, which was more of her realm than cross country.
“We got to run for Justice on an international stage,” she said. “I felt like I could actually breathe and take pride in seeing that school next to our names.”