Sidney Lanier Middle School in Fairfax County will no longer be named after the private who served in the Confederate army. On Friday, June 4, the school announced it will now be known as Katherine Johnson Middle School — the Black NASA mathematician who, along with three other Black women, helped pave the way for the first American astronaut to successfully orbit Earth.
— City of Fairfax Schools (@FairfaxSchools) June 4, 2021
Marlene Lenthang of ABC News reported that “the City of Fairfax’s school board voted unanimously to change the school’s name in November 2020 after months of public debate and hearings.”
“Her contributions continued to serve the nation and helped ensure that the ‘Eagle had landed…and landed safely,'” city school board member Jon Buttram said at the time in a press release. “So, I think it’s appropriate that the name Katherine Johnson for our middle school will inspire new generations of ‘Eagles’ for our community, and I look forward to watching them fly.”
Johnson’s name was an easy selection for the school board and a fitting pick as well, according to principal Tammara M. Hanna, who told ABC, “Our school had been named in the 1960s when Fairfax County named all middle schools after literary figures. After six months of community engagement and receiving over 300 name suggestions, we thought it was important to find a name that reflected the values and beliefs of our diverse school and community. We found great enthusiasm in selecting Katherine Johnson to be our new namesake.”
She then added, “As our City of Fairfax Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Pajardo reminded us at the ceremony, ‘Names matter, names inspire, and names show students that they are valued.’”
President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Johnson’s story also formed the basis for the 2016 film Hidden Figures starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe. Although Johnson passed away in February 2020 at the age of 101, her remaining family, who attended the renaming ceremony, said she would have been touched and honored by the recognition.
“We’re elated that they’ve chosen her name out of so many other names,” said Valerie Johnson, Katherine’s niece. “She had very humble beginnings, she wasn’t a prideful person, and she never really let people know about all her accomplishments. Even as a child, I did not really understand the magnitude of her work, but as I became an adult, I learned about her great and important work at NASA and the fact that she really had superpowers. They were passion, perseverance and courage.”
According to Lenthang, the renaming is part of a new ongoing legacy for the Fairfax region, reporting that “in April, Fairfax County public schools became the first in the nation to rename a high school in honor of John R. Lewis, the late civil rights icon and congressman.”