Stonewall Jackson’s name spread rapidly, and a fury quickly followed.
Woodstock, Va. – It was getting late, exactly after 10 a.m., when the Shenandoah County School Board finally found out about the question that had hung over the county for two long and exhausting years. Should Stonewall Jackson return?
“Discussion,” announced board chairman Marty Helsley weary. “Who wants to go first?”
Two years ago, in the heat of nationwide protests and marches, the country was on the verge of sweeping change. Governments from state houses to city councils publicly pledged to address long-overlooked racist legacies, as policies and monuments that seemed permanent were quickly toppled.
But change itself is unstable. A political backlash ensued almost immediately and newly elected officials began working to undo the rapid changes of 2020. School boards across the country have rescinded policies that emphasize addressing racism, and dozens of states have introduced measures that would restrict race and history. are taught. Glenn Youngkin, elected as governor of Virginia last year, fulfilled a campaign promise on his first day in office by ordering an end to the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts” in schools.
The division in Shenandoah County for the past two years has been over Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate general, and should his name remain associated with the local high school after six decades. It was swiftly removed by a vote of the school board in the 2020 Religious Urgency, and debates about history and democracy continue to conflict, and whose complaints were ignored.
The Civil War in Shenandoah County, a rural and almost entirely white county in northwest Virginia, is not forgotten. Jackson’s soldiers camped on Rood Hill, just a mile from the high school. The Battle of New Market was fought in pastures about five miles south; Four miles north, in the small town of Mount Jackson, a well-groomed Confederate cemetery is overshadowed by a 119-year-old statue and monument that states “there was no such grand cause of the bright land.” Close to the school, in a quiet corner of a wooded grass, is the small Corhaven Cemetery, once known as Sam Moore’s Slave Cemetery.
Presently the state is struggling. Family farms have closed, and not much has taken their place. Young people leave in search of work, and most do not have college degrees.
But they have high school. The high school that used to be Stonewall Jackson is the smallest of the three in the county, and alumni believe that it falls short when it comes to renovations and new facilities. But they also talk proudly about titles in cross-country, basketball and golf, claim millions of dollars in college scholarships and consistently state that the lights and concession booths around the track are largely built by volunteers and donors. Had gone.
The school was named when it was created in 1959, the era of Virginia’s “massive resistance” to school integration. It was disbanded several years later, although at one time there were rarely more than half a dozen black students. For decades, the Confederate imagery that had pervaded Stonewall – flags, emblems, mascots on horseback – was slowly faded away.
But the name remained.
“I had my letterman jacket on with Stonewall Jackson and when I was in Richmond someone stopped me and said, ‘Jeez, are you wearing that too? Remembered Pam Steptoe, one of the only black students in the class of 1981. Back home, she said, it seemed an unchanging fact of life. “Would you like to talk to someone about why the grass is green?”
Then in May 2020, George Floyd was assassinated and protests erupted across the country. Confederate statues came down in Alabama, Texas, in Tennessee and, perhaps most surprisingly, on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA. The governor of Virginia urged schools to get rid of federal names, and in rapid succession, many did.
Things were relatively calm on that front in Shenandoah County until the afternoon of July 4, when an item on the agenda for an upcoming school board meeting was shown: “School Names.” Groups immediately formed and petitions circulated on Facebook, eventually garnering around 2,000 signatures in favor of the name change and 4,000 against. On July 9, in a virtual meeting, the board voted 5–1 to retire the elementary school, Ashby-Lee – the names of two Confederate officers – and the high school, Stonewall Jackson.
The fury was immediate. Angry Stonewall alumni hold school board meetings; A big school donor threatened to stop giving money; A member of the county’s board of supervisors sued to overturn the decision and filed a petition to remove the board chairman. The family members stopped speaking. People were thrashed fiercely in the farmers market.
For opponents of change, the whole thing was an insult to democracy.
“It was sneaky,” said Renee Hawkins, 50, a Stonewall Jackson graduate. She and others filed a barrage of public records requests, revealing discussion of the vote among board members, some of whom, Ms Hawkins and others said, had denied their intentions just days earlier. “For 50 years, people went to this school and never had a problem with the name.”
The new school names – Honey Run for elementary school, Mountain View for high school – were chosen by a committee and stitched onto the uniforms, painted on the gym and put up at the entrance. The shared mascot, the generals, stayed. So he retaliated. In 2021, three new board members were elected, resolved to fight against the “cancellation of culture” and the “era of political indigenization”, and at a meeting in May, the board revived the matter of names.
“It’s been two years!” Mr Helsley, sitting in his work clothes at a local VFW post on the eve of Thursday’s vote, shouted. Mr Helsley, a fourth-generation dairy farmer and former middle school science teacher, had a “no” vote in 2020. He has nothing good to say about that decision-making process, calling it the worst action the board has ever taken. ,
“The name was for 60 years, they removed it in two weeks,” he said. They should have engaged with the public, he said, come up with a protocol, at least take it slow. “sympathy!” he cried. “They didn’t show any.”
With the election of new board members, Mr. Helsley was seen as having the deciding vote to bring back Stonewall Jackson. But once a hero to the people he calls “right-wing”, he became a target when his current intentions became clear. “Nothing good will come of holding it back,” he said. He raised the hypothesis of a black student teacher coming to school or black basketball players coming to a game at the gym. How would he feel if Stonewall Jackson was brought back?
“sympathy!” He said again.
In the school board meeting on Thursday night, public opinion lasted as long as ever. Current students spoke with people who had graduated decades earlier. Alumni of Stonewall’s years praised the general as a local hero, “a symbol of American grit and determination,” as one board member described him. Others preached about democracy and the will of the people, accusing the previous board of dividing the sows where there was none.
“It is the board’s responsibility to show these children how democracy works,” said Stuart Didivack, who declared that his family had “lived, worked, and paid taxes” in the county for 256 years. “Show them that the will of the majority is carried out by the people they have chosen to represent themselves. If you vote against the will of the people you represent, you are prepared to live with the consequences.” should remain.”
Cynthia Walsh, one of the two remaining members on the board who voted for the change in 2020, said a major responsibility of a school board was to make sure all students felt welcome. She argued that sometimes it can take precedence over the will of the parents. “Sometimes we have to make difficult and unpopular decisions on behalf of all the students,” she said as the evening wore on. “If we only listen to the majority, when will the minorities be represented?”
Among the supporters of the original name change, a side that appeared in greater numbers at Thursday’s meeting, were many of Stonewall’s black graduates over the decades. Some won when white speakers said they had never heard anyone complain about the name; No one listened, he said, because no one asked.
“I went to Stonewall, graduated in 1968, I haven’t set foot on that ground since,” said Ann Keels, who moved back to the county 45 years later. “I went to that school to see if the name had been changed,” she said. “I took a picture of it.”
Board members gave their speeches, including Mr. Helsley, who wept bitterly. Then it was time to vote.
“The Motion ends in a 3-3 draw, so it loses,” announced Mr. Helsley. “OK Go on.”
Everyone knew it was not over. Next year is the school board election. “The names will be reinstated,” said one of the speakers. “We just need a seat.”
Ms. Steptoe, from the class of 1981, knew this was probably true. But he said it would be better if the name never changed. He never thought it was possible, not in Shenandoah County, he said, and here it happened. “Even if only for a minute,” she said.