This is my final entry related to the 52 Weeks correspondence. I have voluntarily dedicated my time to sharing Shenandoah County, VA, history that was relevant to the lives of African American ancestors and educational experiences in our community, particularly as they impacted our minority neighbors. This was information I was not taught, nor I ever heard discussed, until I was in my thirties, largely thanks to my dear friend, Nancy Stewart, who passed away this past year. The only local history I learned growing up was related to Civil War battles, by visiting New Market Battlefield, or the Burning of the Valley, or through blind memorialization of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee. When I was a child, I didn't know there were approximately 16 burial grounds for formerly enslaved African Americans in our county - one not even a 1/2 mile from the southern campus schools; nor that our Confederate ancestors were led in battle to attack Washington D.C. - the capital of our country - on July 5, 1864, which is why the Valley was burned. The only two Civil War generals I was taught to honor and revere were both from the Confederacy, whose leaders fought for states rights to choose slavery. I was taught that there were barely any slaves in Shenandoah County,VA, while in fact 12.5% of the population was once enslaved. That's hundreds of people, not a handful.
Ben Carson says it well: “There has been evidence of slavery since the beginning of recorded history, and again, it was horrible, but America is not unique in having utilized the labor of others for its own economic advantage. America was unique, however, in that it had so many people who were morally outraged that an institution like slavery could exist in our country... that they were willing to go to war and sacrifice a substantial portion of the population to end the practice. Some will say the war was not about ending slavery, but rather preserving the Union. A more in-depth analysis would quickly reveal that the reason for the secession of the South was so that it could maintain slavery” (Created Equal, 2022:88-89).
Jackson and Ashby are two of the "substantial portion of the population" that died for our country to abolish slavery. We should be celebrating the end of slavery and the beginning of more equal rights for all - not brandishing our schools with their names - especially when we know our school system did not provide equal educational opportunities for all students prior to the Civil Rights Act.
With all this, I choose to look forward with hope. I choose to recognize how we can truly honor the people in America's past that were willing to sacrifice their lives so that we can have more equality in our country today than we did then. What does this look like? How do we move forward? It begins by remembering all the reasons why the names were changed in the first place.
In 2020, watching the horrific murder of George Floyd, local, state, and national leaders - including our own Board of Supervisors and School Board leaders - signed resolutions condemning racism. The one signed by Shenandoah County school board leaders was "modeled after a measure distributed to school districts throughout the state by the Virginia School Board Association," according to a July 6, 2020 press release. It stated:
"WHEREAS, members of the Shenandoah County School Board, as well as the Shenandoah County Public Schools staff, are saddened and outraged by recent events that demonstrate the prejudice and injustice that persists in our country;
"WHEREAS, racism and hate have no place in our schools or our society, and we must protect the Constitutional rights of every person who lives, works and learns in our community;
"WHEREAS, we cannot be silent. We urgently must act to stop the racial injustice that harms and anguishes Black people, who are our family, friends, neighbors, students, staff members and fellow Americans;
"WHEREAS, we must listen. Those who have endured discrimination and intolerance deserve to be heard as they share the stories and truth about their experiences and feelings, and we must seek with great empathy to understand their challenges and their pain;
"WHEREAS, we must learn. It is time to engage our community in meaningful and honest conversation about racial inequality, to build alliances with those committed to justice for all, and to work together to support our shared conviction that racism must end;
"WHEREAS, we must lead. Each of us, individually and collectively, is responsible for creating and nurturing an anti-racist learning environment where every child is respected and valued for who they are, regardless of their skin color. We must actively acknowledge, address and present racial bias that occurs as a result of division policies, practices and actions; and
"WHEREAS, we must do better. Our school division can be and will be a sanctuary of safety in our community and a beacon of light for the world, as we build and strengthen trust with those we serve, and we model the acceptance of all people.
"THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that we, members of the Shenandoah County School Board stand steadfast in our commitment to foster an inclusive educational environment where every student, teacher, support professional, parent and community member is treated with dignity and respect, as well as our commitment to continue fighting for racial justice and human and civil rights for all" (Resolution condemning racism and affirming the division's commitment to an inclusive school environment for all, 25 June 2020).
School districts across the country signed similar resolutions and took action, prompted by state and national leaders. Then Secretary of State Qarni issued a statement encouraging community leaders to use their positions to address unjust laws and policy that harm African Americans, specifically, but minority groups, implicitly. The first consideration, according to a FaceBook post? “Change school names and mascots that are offensive or that memorialize confederate leaders or sympathizers.” Similarly, NPR revealed in July 2020, Governor Northam had written a letter to school boards across the state asking localities to change the names of schools and mascots that continued to honor the Confederacy, using the claim: “When our public schools are names after individuals who advanced slavery and systemic racism, and we allow those names to remain on school property, we tacitly endorse their values as our own.” In Shenandoah County, that included a difficult decision to remove the names of Confederate leaders - aiming to create public school identity that was based not on lost cause narrative nor on standards of massive resistance, but on celebrating diversity and creating public school areas that took offering dignity and respect to all community members seriously. Jackson and Lee did not respect half of their countrymen and did not respect African Americans - that's the bottom line. If they did, they would have chosen a different side to have fought on.
Retiring the school names of Stonewall Jackson High School and Ashby-Lee Elementary School and choosing the more inclusive and less divisive names, Mountain View High School and Honey Run Elementary School, was like creating a ground zero. Ground zero is an epicenter, the central place where intense change occurs. This change caused intense ripples for our community: unsettling the status quo of privileging the narratives of only Confederate ancestors, redirecting familiar nomenclature for six decades of alumni et alumnae, and yet bringing justice to our county's cumulative acts of injustice (and these are just a few that stand out in regard to education):
- selling children in our county, prior to the American Civil War, rather than educating them (see Week 17: Sale of Children),
- diverting approximately $492,000 in school funds, which had been given in the early 20th century to make schools for the two races equal, to build three consolidated high schools that are noted in the school board minutes as serving only the white race, while African American high schoolers were deflected out of our county for education (see Week 49: S J H S),
- ignoring the voices of African Americans requesting access to better educational resources in the county and continuing to follow state standards of segregation until 1963-64 (see Week 48: Not One Positive Step).
The renaming of schools was a hard experience, especially socio-emotionally. But it offered an opportunity for peace, for unity, and for our community to flourish over time. This is what communities all across America and even around the world, have witnessed as people of diverse backgrounds come together to dialogue on past traumas and work to create a stronger community together. This final letter is a tribute to examples of positive solutions to challenges where racial injustice has occurred in a community, as well as an opportunity to pause and reflect on our county's cultivation of public spaces that allow for positive community identity.
What message does Shenandoah County Public Schools want to say about its history? We have to be honest. We cannot pick and choose what we are proud to know about who we have been. Shenandoah County has not always been a safe place for African Americans. Slavery and Jim Crow laws were realities here. Slavery impacted the lives of African Americans, who were at the whim of white owners that put their own personal needs above those they bought and sold like cattle. It's also important to point out that, worldwide, slavery is as pervasive as it ever has been, even though it's almost universally illegal. Several non-profits, globally and locally, proffer awareness of modern-day slavery, including: International Justice Mission, Anti-Slavery International, and New Creation. The heartbeat of the Confederacy was states rights to choose slavery. You cannot separate Confederate leaders from this message of injustice, no matter what their religious beliefs were. Reverting the names of our southern campus schools to those of Confederate leaders would be a step away from partnering with organizations such as IJM to combat slavery. Doing so would present an implied pro-slavery, pro-inequality message to the world, even if it was an unintentional butterfly effect. Keeping the school names as Mountain View and Honey Run are the primary way to promote peace and community.
It's important to be honest. How do we teach local history in school, honestly? Do we talk about the positive impact of African Americans? We wouldn't have Route 211 without the labor of enslaved and freed African Americans. We wouldn't have Route 11 without the Indigenous Peoples that hunted here and the settlers that drove their wagons into the Valley. Generations of contributions, and all we want to do is harken on the four years of the Civil War? We have a far richer history than focusing on warfare. It's important to celebrate the beautiful ways our community members contributed to making this place a home. What are the most tangible assets for our county? How do we encourage our children to recognize these assets and form healthy pride in being from Shenandoah County, VA?
My understanding is that our public school fifth-graders are required to visit New Market Battlefield, the site of a Confederate victory on May 15, 1864, but these children are not required to visit a slave cemetery. Why not? Is this a balanced representation of history? How can we present a more balanced narrative? Rockingham County Public Schools was working on a curriculum that shared local African American history for its students to learn. Their website proffers a way to share history (click on Local History) that includes Zenda (one of the African American communities formed following the American Civil War as African Americans sought protection in numbers) and Lucy Simms, an African American educator and namesake of the African American school in Rockingham County that educated even Shenandoah County high schoolers prior to integration. Shenandoah County should have a similar site that is honest about its local history. Who were the African American educators that taught our primary school students? How did African Americans contribute to the industry in our county? Did you know New Market had a really good African American potter? Did you know there was an Indigenous settlement in the Quicksburg area at one time? Why don't students learn about these aspects of our county's history, too? Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project is a local non-profit working to learn, share, and illuminate African American history all across the Shenandoah Valley, including in Shenandoah County, too. There are local archaeologists and historians working, legally, to uncover more than just Civil War history. Invite these groups and people to help with research, if you don't like what I have shared.
In addition to truth, we need to promote reconciliation, or "the restoring of friendly relations or the action of making one view or belief compatible with another." Our county has proffered a lopsided focus on Confederate history that is not healthy to continue. I'm not calling for the ancient Roman act of damnatio memoriae, which was a Senatorial vote that condemned a person to silence and removed them from historical memory. But, let this history stay on the battlefields, in the museums, and in history books. The Confederacy should not tarnish our community identity, because the people in our community - and especially the children - deserve to focus on what unifies us, not what divides us. Our community is filled with people whose ancestors were enslaved, denied basic rights, and sent out of county for a high school education. Some of our community members still remember being sent out of county for an education. How do we promote reconciliation today? Are we setting up contextual placquards at Civil War sites or UDC memorials that give a fair and balanced perspective? Do we share about how we treated African Americans from 1870-1963 in terms our educational injustice and celebrate that now we know better and do better - offering a more just educational system?
Locally, our county honored some of the African American students that attended Sunset school in Strasburg. There was a wonderful dedication of a highway sign in November of 2020. I homeschooled all three of my children at the time and they were some of the only white kids at that unveiling. How can such a momentous occasion only have had three homeschooled children in attendance? Why didn't more children come to this event? The quick answer is that their parents didn't take them and their community leaders, teachers, and coaches didn't promote the event enough. We have to encourage and support opportunities that allow for remembering the hard history so we make better decisions together in the future. I'm still impacted by the sight of African Americans - who weren't allowed as children to ride a public school bus in our county because of their skin color - sitting on a Shenandoah County Public School bus in 2020. And, more importantly, this has become part of my sons' memories as well. Why did that injustice have to wait over sixty years to be righted? And how many of our African American neighbors weren't able to experience this simple act of love, because they didn't live long enough for that to happen to them? Many have died before they knew someone in their county cared about what they went through and wanted to remind them they are an important part of who we are in Shenandoah County, too. That should mean something to us today - as much as, if not more than, how Jackson would feel about his legacy today.
How do we have these conversations and how do we honor who we are together? All across our country, groups of people from enslaving families and enslaved families are coming together to talk about difficult history. Coming to the Table has a Northern Shenandoah Valley chapter that meets monthly and includes people from our county. This non-profit organization focuses on "working together to create a just and truthful society that acknowledges and seeks to heal from the racial wounds of the past, from slavery and the many forms of racism it spawned." Another group, Family Circle, was formed specifically by members of the Lee family "to bring back the memories of our ancestors, as well as reconcile with the family that enslaved them." The group is pushing to change the official designation of Arlington House to drop Robert E. Lee's name as an effort of reconciliation. A member of Family Circle shares in an article by NPR: "I think this opportunity... allows our country to repair itself and to heal over some of the division that we've had for so long. So much of the time, we're talking past each other. We're not talking to each other."
Is Shenandoah County working to preserve this history and reconcile over what happened? To date only three of the burial grounds for formerly enslaved African Americans have been researched and preserved. Most are in a state of disrepair and overgrown. How can we bring awareness to such sacred spaces? It begins with recognition and honest dialogue surrounding uncomfortable history.
Regardless of how one feels about the process, the act of changing the names of southern campus schools was right. Undoing that just act would be a vengeful form of retaliation and unhelpful for our community in healing and moving forward together. Reverting to names of schools with Confederate leaders would once again privilege one side's perspective, celebrate a time known for its Massive Resistance to integration, and bolster a lack of empathy for the heritage of every person that does not have Confederate ancestors. The current names unify - the old names divide. Even today, 240 United States public schools still hold the names of Confederate leaders on their facades. Equal Justice Initiative is encouraging school districts to research the history of their schools to find out when they were named and to rename those chosen during times of Massive Resistance after Brown v. Board. These aren't private schools, these are public schools, funded by the United States of America. Attendance at public schools is compulsory under law. Not all students' families can afford a private school or have the ability to homeschool. This means our public schools must be compatible with the values USA communities hold true. EJI shares: "every day in the U.S., thousands of children across the country attend schools named in honor of Confederate leaders who fought to preserve slavery and racial hierarchy in America. Simply by going to school, young people are taught to embrace the names, likenesses, and symbols of men who fought a brutal war against the U.S. in order to preserve white supremacy" (The Truth About Confederate-Named Schools, 16 September 2020). How sad for Shenandoah County, Va, if we again add two more schools to EJI's count!
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (FY2021 NDAA) included similar measures for renaming United States bases named for people who voluntarily served in governments that fought against our country. The bi-partisan provision in the FY2021 NDAA created a National Commission on Modernizing Military Installation Designations to review current names of military installations and make recommendations for names that better align with the values of the United States of America and the mission of our military. Rep. Bacon shares, "Our military bases should bear the names of America's war heroes who went above and beyond to answer the call of duty, and who represent the best ideals of our Republic, such as Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipients, or other national heroes. Right now, many of our military bases are named after Confederate leaders who betrayed their Constitutional oath and caused the death of over 600,000 people because of slavery... This is the way we come together and move our country forward." House Armed Services Vice Chair Brown shares, "Who our military honors, reflects our values. We cannot ask young service members to live, train and raise their families on bases honoring men who betrayed their country to keep Black men, women and children in bondage. The United States does not lack for heroes we should honor and whose examples can serve as inspirations." Defense Secretary Austin stated in 2022, "The names of... installations and facilities should inspire all those who call them home, fully reflect the history and the values of the United States, and commemorate the best of the republic that we are all sworn to protect." Secretary of the Army Wormuth, addressing the decision to disassociate the U.S. Army from Confederate symbols and leaders after protests over George Floyd's unnecessary death, said, "It was a moment of unrest and significant division in our country, and both political parties overwhelmingly agreed that names on certain military installations, and the legacies of those names, were only deepening our social and political divides. Change is often necessary, but not often easy."
The truth is, all of us have different life experiences - but with common threads, the most common being that we are citizens of the United States of America. As each of us try to pursue our own lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness, it's imperative to recognize when those pursuits cause even unintentional harm to others. This is how we form strong communities and a strong community identity: by including balanced narratives that invite every person within a specific community into the story of that place. When we view our public spaces as homes for each member of the community, how does this alter our perception of these places? How do visitors perceive our public schools? Are they inclusive? Are they welcoming? Do they hold subliminal messages that connote unintentional forms of hatred, fear, or lack of respect for any U.S. citizen?
Ultimately, it's up to each of us. We have to be willing to talk with people that have different ideas from our own. We cannot blindly follow tradition or status quo or bias. We have to have hard conversations, civilly, as if around a kitchen table. That is what 52 Weeks has aimed to do: to share hard stuff, civilly. How will you continue the conversation? Whose narratives will you seek to promote from among the people you choose to talk to? My hope is that such conversations will include the perspectives of people you usually do not invite for tea or coffee. My hope is that this will spark opportunities to seek out the lived experiences of people of color and minority groups, because real change only happens when we listen, not to respond, but to hear and to create a shared community identity that includes their narratives, too. Change is not always easy, but it is often necessary.
Thank you for walking with me on this journey - even if it was begrudgingly. I have great respect for anyone who wants to serve his or her community in a positive way. I believe in Jesus' example of unconditional love; and, I believe such love is a basic tenet to life. I pray all your decisions derive from such a source of love. Know that my offer for a cuppa tea or coffee and civil conversation is always open to you.
SENK is an artist and writer in the Shenandoah Valley. The blog, 52 Weeks, is an ethical contemplation on the importance of choosing public school names that are not divisive within a community. Each post is based on over eight years of research by the author. 52 Weeks is a compassionate appeal to community and school board members to not revert to the names of Confederate leaders for Shenandoah County, Va, public schools.
52 / Remembering & Moving On
51 / Integration & Teachers
50 / In Our Own Community
49 / S J H S
48 / Not One Positive Step
47 / Maintaining Public Peace
46 / Brown v. Board
45 / Rebuilding a Pro-Confederate South
44 / An Out-of-area Education
43 / Where's the 'Common Sense Consideration'?
42 / Education Without Heart
41 / Self-Preservation
40 / Free Public Schools
39 / The Mask of Defiance
38 / The Golden Door of Freedom
37 / Prejudicial to our Race
36 / Are We Compassionate?
35 / Community
34 / Need for Radical Change
33 / Bitter Prejudice
32 / Fear of 'Negro Equality'
31 / Rachel, Lashed to Death
30 / The Whim of the Court: A Look at Jacob, Stacy, Lett; March & Peter; Jeffrey & Peter
29 / Ben, Tom, Ned, Clary, & two men from the furnace
28 / The Loss of Fortune
27 / James Scott, A Free Man
26 / The Unremembered, The Unheard
25 / The American Cause
24 / Tithables for the County & Parish
23 / Satisfactory Proof of Being Free
22 / Building Community Takes Trust
21 / Jacob's Case
20 / Whose Control?
19 / Racial Classifications
18 / The Cost of Freedom in 1840
17 / Sale of Children
16 / Bequeathal of Future Increase
15 / The First Annual
14 / From a Descendant of a CSA Soldier
13 / True Americanism
12 / Slavery. A Hot Topic.
11 / Real Character
10 / Real Apologies
9 / Freedom from Fear
8 / 250 Years
7 / The Courage of Christ
6 / Whose Narratives?
5 / The 13th Amendment
4 / Symbolic Act of Justice
3 / Giving Thanks
2 / Confederate Congress
1 / Veteran's Day