Last week I shared an account by an African American man, enslaved by Lee, to remind that Lee was an enslaver who benefitted from such an economic practice. Abolition would have dire consequences for him and for many other southern plantation owners - and yet it crept closer with the 1820 Missouri Compromise (admitting Maine as a free state / Missouri as a slave state and limiting slavery to south of the 36°30' parallel in the Louisiana Purchase), the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act (repealing the Missouri Compromise and allowing "popular sovereignty" or essentially state's rights in choosing slavery in newly formed territories), and 1856 Dred Scott vs. Stanford case (in which the Supreme Court ruled "a free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a 'citizen' within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States"). US 393 continues by stating, "The change in public opinion and feeling in relation to the African race which has taken place since the adoption of the Constitution cannot change its construction and meaning, and it must be construed and administered now according to its true meaning and intention when it was formed and adopted... The plaintiff having admitted, by his demurrer to the plea in abatement, that his ancestors were imported from Africa and sold as slaves, he is not a citizen of the State of Missouri according to the Constitution of the United States, and was not entitled to sue in that character in the Circuit Court." Ultimately, this decision reaffirmed slaves as property, which was claimed in the US 393 decision as protected by the Constitution for citizens. And as noted in a previous letter, this concept of slavery as property and a right for citizens was written clearly into the Constitution of the Confederate States of America.
The point is: slavery had been a hot topic for a long time. Senator Calhoun concedes in his speech to the Senate on Antislavery Petitions from 1837: "The peculiar institution of the South, that on the maintenance of which the very existence of the slave-holding States depends, is pronounced to be sinful and odious, in the sight of God and man; and this with a systematic design of rendering us hateful in the eyes of the world, with a view to a general crusade against us and our institutions... and yet we, the representatives of twelve of these sovereign States against whom this deadly war is waged, are expected to sit here in silence, hearing ourselves and our constituents day after day denounced..." (American Speeches, 2006:293). Men like Lee, Jackson, and Ashby would have known about the issues of slavery and abolition, including the fact that slavery was written into the foundational principles of the CSA, for which they chose to fight. And any thoughts on the character of slavery are contemporaneous to the 1800s - it was seen as an evil by many then, just as it is seen as an evil by many today.
The Valley Campaign of 1862 cemented Thomas Jackson's larger than life persona. While this image sparkled with that of an immovable combatant that inspired many, he also embodied fear and sparked defiance among some of his men.
At Cedar Creek, for example, an account by a New York soldier, who witnessed contraband enslaved African Americans fleeing lest they be captured and murdered by Jackson's men, states: "They...knew that they had everything to lose in being captured" (Noyalas, Stonewall Jackson's 1862 Valley Campaign, 2010:84). Not long after one battle returned Winchester into the hands of the CSA, a Union commissary sergeant wrote, "The road was lined all the way with families of free negroes who with a bundle in their hands were leaving all for fear Jackson would get them and kill them" (2010:94).
Service in the CSA's army was required for local men of a certain age. If they could not desert via the Unionist Underground Railroad, which was a way for males subject to Confederate conscription to realize freedom by removing them to a safe location, and if they could not afford to hire a substitute to take their place in the conscription, then they had little choice but to join. Jackson, himself, shares this: "Those who do not desert will, to some extent, hire substitutes, others will turn out in obedience to the governor's call; but I understand some of them to say they will not 'shoot.' They can be made to fire, but can very easily take bad aim" (2010:55).
Many soldiers and leaders in the United States's army, on the other hand, were abolitionists. Gen. Banks, for example, was known for his policy of encouraging slaves to run away. His men were even known to punish or arrest white southerners who mistreated slaves. If the point of the southern campus schools was in honoring great generals - then why weren't the names Banks or Grant or another USA general considered as options for the school names on January 12, 1959, when Stonewall Jackson High School was officially named? (Don't worry, we will return to this.)
Recognizing the historic injustices against African Americans, Indigenous Peoples, women, and other minorities, due not only to a lack of representation in government, but also the foundational mindset of exploitation placed on our country as a result of being a colony of Great Britain, means it is extremely important for leaders in our country to make choices more intentionally. As Proenza-Coles says in American Founders, "American history is not black or white, free or slave; it is both, we are both, and this realization will help us to better understand our past and our present" (2019:xxx).
Generals that belittle or strike fear into the hearts of people that should be protected (and thankfully now are protected) by our laws and government, have no place as role models for our youth today - especially when those generals led thousands of men into an unjust war. Many of our community's ancestors died because they were required to follow men like Lee and Jackson and Ashby into war. Many of our community's ancestors were enslaved and beaten because of men like these. If this is what it means to be a General, then even that mascot should have been removed from our schools.
The public school is not meant for training children to become soldiers, but to become capable citizens of The United States of America. How can we do that at schools whose names derive from leaders that fought against the USA, and led others to do so, as well? That is the antithesis of citizenship.
I am a product of the Shenandoah County Public School system. I did not know there were any slave cemeteries in Shenandoah County, Va, when I was growing up. I was required to write an essay espousing the virtues of leaders like Lee and Jackson. I was taught by a Sunday School teacher about the War of Northern Aggression. These perspectives are damaging to our children and to our community. And I only recognized this by reading primary source documents, minutes, deed books, and personal accounts by enslaved individuals, as well as seeing several slave cemeteries' depressions of graves along a fence line and devoid of the grandiose statuary that memorializes Confederate leaders and soldiers in our county. Experiences with none of these things has traditionally happened in our school system. But, our children are required to visit the New Market Battlefield, which commemorates a Confederate victory.
These letters are not about me. They are not about pointing out where the school system has been failing our children. They are neither condemnations of historical figures nor admirations of them. They are reminders that whatever names go onto our public school buildings need to be 1) non-divisive, and 2) the best of all of us - historically, in the present, and looking toward our future. The current names, Honey Run and Mountain View, do that well!
The Christian character of Confederate generals and soldiers is constantly brought to the forefront of any conversation surrounding the name change issue. I'll share more in another post; however, today, I'm focusing on Lee. In Slave Testimony, edited by John Blassingame, there is the following account of Wesley Norris, enslaved in Virginia by Robert E Lee and interviewed in 1866:
"It has frequently been represented by the friends and admirers of Robert E. Lee, late an officer in the rebel army, that, although a slaveholder, his treatment of his chattels was invariably kind and humane. The subjoined statement, taken from the lips of one of his former slaves, indicates the real character of the man:
"My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; it was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; we had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to 'lay it on well,' an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flash, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our bodies with brine, which was done. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired; we remained in jail about a week, when we were sent to Nelson county, where we were hired out by Gen. Lee's agent to work on the Orange and Alexander railroad; we remained thus employed for about seven months, and were then sent to Alabama, and put to work on what is known as the Northeastern railroad; in January, 1863, we were sent to Richmond, from which place I finally made my escape through the rebel lines to freedom; I have nothing further to say; what I have stated is true in every particular, and I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements..." (1977:467-468).
In a previous post, I shared that Confederate leaders like Lee and Jackson chose to follow state over God. In terms of this comment, another testimony in the same resource but this time by Primus Smith who was born in Virginia in 1844 and enslaved in Virginia and Missouri states, "I have heard Mr. Lee say, with my own ears, that he would stay with his state of Virginia if a war came" (1977:599). This sentiment was part of Lee's own letters and decision to choose fighting for his State, even when offered the position U.S. Grant assumed for America, later. It was similar for Jackson - despite letters from his sister encouraging him otherwise. So when I talk about choosing state, I'm literally stating that - they chose Virginia, they chose the position of breaking away from America, foremost - not as founding fathers of our current nation, but as leaders of a new country - one whose cornerstone was literally the inequality between the two races and the economic preservation of slavery. And even moreso, they had a choice - there are plenty of examples, especially in 1859, of abolitionists who were fighting literally with their very lives to end slavery. John Brown, who was a Christian too, is the most notorious of these - and whom Lee and Jackson would have known about. Here are words from John Brown (not Lee or Jackson or Ashby): "I hold God in infinitely greater reverence than Congress..." Brown gave his life for the cause of racial abolition. You can travel to Kennedy Farm and Harper's Ferry and learn more about his story there. Brown's was a far more noble goal than the decisions that people like Lee, Jackson, and Ashby made to lead thousands of soldiers into a bloody civil war.
As you will notice, I am trying to condense these points as much as I can, not only out of respect for your time, but also because I, too, have a lot of roles and three precious sons to raise. I am doing this because I love them and I care about what their diplomas say. I didn't have that choice and my parents' generation didn't speak up. I'm doing this because of my local African American and Hispanic friends - all of whom I have heard share that they did not want the names of Confederate leaders on our public schools. I value their perspectives and want to honor them by raising my voice, even if no one else does.
A president of The United States of America has never apologized for the enslavement of Africans and African Americans, nor the Jim Crow era that stripped opportunity and equality from so many African Americans following Reconstruction.
Reagan did sign the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which was an official apology and reparations to Japanese-Americans, for their wrongful internment on American soil, in places like Minidoka in Idaho, during World War II. This is especially poignant to note because it was today in 1942, that President Roosevelt reluctantly signed Proclamation No. 2537, which put into motion these internments. (I say reluctantly, because he was pushed by majority leaders in California, etc.)
However, in terms of other historical injustices, which happened over a longer period of time in America and which impacted a far greater number of people, only unofficial, incongruent, or addendum apologies have been kicked around by congressional or senatorial representatives. In the back portion of Defense Appropriations Act of 2010 (H.R. 3326, section 8113) you will find an apology sans reparations and sans liability to the US government for "many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States" (H.R. 3326, section 8113.2). This act also called on the President of the United States to acknowledge such wrongs, which President Obama did the same year. (A president, we should note, whose ancestry included people that had been wronged by our government was required to apologize on behalf of that government.)
H.R. 3326 also encouraged "all state governments to work toward reconciling their relationship with Indian tribes within their boundaries" (Sec. 8113.4) Unlike the Japanese-American apology, this one did not come with reparations.
In 2008 and 2009, it appeared that an official apology might happen for African Americans, too. By this time, some West African nations had been issuing formal apologies for their roles in the transatlantic slave trade: Benin (1999), Ghana (2006), and later by tribal leaders in Cameroon (2013) and among other West African peoples. In some cases these apologies were issued to descendants of peoples who had been enslaved in places like Virginia. And sometimes it was encouraged by the missionary outreach of Virginians, like Brian Johnson who heads a Reconciliation Missions Network in Africa, according to one article, West Africans to African-Americans: "We Apology for Slavery."
H.R. 194, which was passed by the House of Representatives in July 2008, "acknowledges that slavery is incompatible with the basic principle recognized in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. Acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow. Apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the U.S. people for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors. Commits to rectifying the lingering consequences of slavery and Jim Crow and to stopping future human rights violations." But it didn't go any further. There was no presidential apology. No reparations. It settled like a sparked match without a candle to light.
In presenting H.R. 194, Rep. Cohen stated: "I speak on this resolution and urge the members of this body to pass this historic resolution, recognize our errors, but also recognize the greatness of this country, because only a great country can recognize and admit its mistakes and then travel forth to create indeed a more perfect union that works to bring people of all races, religions and creeds together in unity as Americans part of the United States of America."
And that is where we are today. In a post-George Floyd world that has experienced an unprecedented global pandemic and continues to experience repercussions from both, America's leaders need to support reconciliatory measures in their communities. I'm not talking about checks to some citizens and not to others. I'm talking about investing in appropriate public spaces (schools, parks, roads, etc), whose names empower and inspire - not haunt part of a community; investing in the educational success of all of our children; investing in health reforms that care for all of our elderly; investing in our country's healing.
The impacts of historical trauma are real. To heal from such trauma, it is vital to acknowledge the wrongdoings of a country against people that should have been under its protection, allow the stories to be known, and integrate actions that promote transformation into places of inclusion and respect for all Americans.
Renaming southern campus schools to once again bear the names of Confederate leaders that worked, in some cases, until their deaths to lead others against the ideals of equality and justice, aligns with the impacts of historical trauma. I encourage you to publicly work toward true social healing by encouraging continued acts of reconciliation in our community.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, established in 1948 by United Nations, begins with weaving together all people into one human race - a reminder that no matter our melanin count or blood type, cultural or religious preference, zip code or language, a human being is a human being. It includes the following articles that are particularly pertinent to note:
- Article 3: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person."
- Article 4: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."
- Article 5: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
- Article 26.2. "Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups..."
Today in 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his Four Freedoms speech, which directly impacted portions of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These freedoms are: 1) freedom of speech and expression, 2) freedom of religion, 3) freedom from want, and 4) freedom from fear.
The freedom from fear. And yet, even with the end of the American Civil War, African Americans and other minority groups were often harassed or intimidated by those that sought to control their actions and hinder their equality of rights, which had been newly established by The United States of America's Constitution. For example, the Freedmen's Bureau Records report cases in 1868 (nos. 36 and 38) of an African American woman, Celina Jackson, who witnessed the burning of the US flag at an official's Shenandoah County office in his absence by a white mob. She was assaulted; and yet the Civil Authorities did nothing to protect her or her rights.
The freedom from fear. And yet, even in 2020 - the same year George Floyd was murdered - one of our own Shenandoah County residents was assaulted on his own property by a white mob, called 911, and then was himself arrested because he brandished a firearm he legally owned in order to dissuade the trespassers from further abuse. Even though the police later apologized and the case was dropped, the harm had been done. That arrest placed a message in our community that required action. That death in our country placed a message in our community that required action. And it is all related to FDR's freedom from fear. The freedoms of equality that Thomas Jackson, Robert Lee, and Turner Ashby fought against by canceling their citizenship to The United States of America and instead placing their allegiance into The Confederate States of America, whose message of economic exploitation of other human beings was quite clearly pronounced and embedded into their Constitution.
The required action was taken when two public schools that still bore the names of Confederate leaders were renamed from Stonewall Jackson to Mountain View High School and from Ashby-Lee to Honey Run Elementary School. This action was done to create freedom from fear. Our county continues to brandish fear as a weapon and that is not right. I implore you to consider the message that would be made in reverting to the previous school names - know all the history, not just the Lost Cause Narrative. Our children deserve freedom from fear. They deserve the right to life, liberty, and security of person. They deserve freedom from cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment. They deserve freedom from slavery. They deserve understanding, tolerance, and friendships. And yet if we really stop and think about it, the previous school names did not insinuate these rights at all.
Two-hundred and fifty (250) years ago, Shenandoah County was founded, but as Dunmore County in 1772. At the time it also included a large portion of Page County, which was formally founded in 1831.
As a homeschooling educator, I find timelines really helpful. They provide appropriate scale for historical events. Without them, community bias, formed from the perspective of a dominant social, religious, political, or cultural class, can harbor one event as more important or significant for a place than another. A community's identity should be inclusive and celebrate what everyone who lives there holds in common.
Our forefathers (and mothers) understood this. It's why they changed the name from Dunmore County to Shenandoah County - to prove loyalty and claim an identity that resonated with what would become a new country that was already forming even then. Our ancestors were relinquishing the colonial mindset for an American mindset. My focus here is not a philosophical or moral debate on what these mindsets look like - it's simply to lay out a rudimentary timeline and to point out that names change and have changed in our county over time. Whether it's the county name; Cabin Hill to Conicville (or Conicsville, as many locals call it); Mount Pleasant to Mount Jackson (alas, developed from a poorly thought-out act of the Va General Assembly, in 1826, to honor Andrew Jackson, of all people).
For 93 of those 250 years, or 37% of our county's foundational timeline, the institute of slavery was practiced by plantation owners in our county's part of the valley and by families that owned one or two enslaved individuals to work on their farms or help raise their children. In 1865, the 13th Amendment formally ended this institution (unless American citizens were imprisoned, anyway) as a widely practiced economic basis for our country; however, laws sprang up all across American states and territories to attempt control of social and economic standards for communities - ones that limited what minority groups could do, and in many cases become. That means 99 more years (or approximately 39.6% of 250 years) saw segregation in our own county, as well as sharecropping, unequal educational standards among our students, and other methods of intimidation from a dominant class until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which our then school board signed as readily as the Resolution Against Racism that circulated across the country and which our Board of Supervisors and School Board signed in 2020.
Looking at the numbers, that leaves only approximately 58 years (or 23% of our county's history) during which a more level playing field has been created for all American citizens in our county. Weighing 77% with that 23% of our county's history, any public school names should draw from historically significant people that worked for equality and justice and that left a positive mark on our communities and for all our people. Or, even better, any public school names should draw from geographically significant names - the environment that cradles our lives and marks impressions of hope, of possibility, and of comfort in each of us.
In choosing names for three public high schools, literally built in our county to educate only our population's white children, it is essential to recognize the injustice that was done when Stonewall Jackson was chosen out of all the possible names that could have been considered. Until the late 1950s, school names had typically been taken from the name of the community: Forestville, Edinburg, Strasburg. Using the name of a CSA general was a massive deviation that made a political statement.
We'll talk about that more later, but for now, I just want to point out one thing: Thomas Jackson was not born in nor lived in Shenandoah County. Neither did Lee or Ashby, for that matter. And before the American Civil War and more specifically, 1861, these three names were not known together and never all three in this place at the same time. For argument's sake, we'll take the whole of the Civil War, even though Jackson was only in the Shenandoah Valley for an extremely brief amount of time. Four years is a mere 1.6% of that 250 year timeline. With a current population of approximately 44,000 - I should think that over a 250 year history (99.6%, plus or minus 0.3%, of which has nothing to do with Stonewall Jackson), there would be hundreds of thousands more appropriate names of people who actually were born in or lived in Shenandoah County, Va, to choose from if our goal in choosing names for public spaces is significant to a positive community identity, based on inclusivity and recognizing what brings us together the most. And, let's be honest. How many of us today actually knew Thomas Jackson?
Community, when brought together peacefully and with good intention, is something to celebrate, especially into the new year.
December 25th is the traditional time for celebrating the birth of Jesus. It's in the gentle coming of a Savior that we have to pause and reflect on the message of Christianity, not only today, but also historically, as well as what it can offer the world to come. The faith we practice is one means through which we form and live out our morality, our character, and our impact on the world around us.
And this reminds me of William Davis, who was once enslaved in Hampton, Virginia, before the American Civil War. Similar to Bethany Veney, he found faith in God, which bolstered his character. As an overseer of other enslaved workers on a plantation, Davis was "opposed to corporal punishment, and...none of his fellow slaves ever felt the lash, consequently they worked with three times as much energy and satisfaction. Other owners noticed...and inquired the cause. Davis told them that men worked better when led, not driven" (Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 1977:171).
This example is in contradiction to what happened in the 1830s and 1840s, when there was a movement of evangelizing enslaved individuals, not only as a means for salvation of souls, but more importantly as a way for the then-viewed superior white race to control the then-viewed inferior black race and the character that they developed. Nat Turner's 1831 uprising demonstrated the need for this among civil leaders. And soon Colored Sunday Schools were popping up everywhere, including the one taught by Thomas Jackson in Lexington, Virginia. The catechism focused on moral living and obedience to masters (I'll share about the Slave Bible in the future). Chris Graham of the American Civil War Museum shares it best: "Jackson’s Sunday school fit seamlessly into a proslavery theology that worked not to undermine slavery (as the Sunday School myth claims), but to bolster the institution and make it work according to God’s plans. Proslavery Christianity rested on assumptions of the inherent incapacity of black people to manage their own spiritual lives, and the necessity of superior whites to instruct them in proper religion" (Graham 2017).
This perspective is supported by John Anderson, who was born in 1831 and enslaved as a field hand in Missouri before his escape to freedom. Anderson shared his testimony in the Toronto Weekly Globe, February 22, 1861 through an interviewer that wrote: "Anderson is a Free Will Baptist by profession, and was a regular attendant on the services of that denomination. He never heard any ministers denouncing slavery. Any who would do so would not be allowed to preach" (Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 1977:353).
These ideas weren't just a belief among southern states, it was pervasive to the entirety of our country at the time. A series of interviews by the 1936-38 Federal Writers' Project conducted interviews with former slaves that includes the following account from Charles Brandy on February 26, 1937: "Slaves were not allowed much freedom of worship. The Yankee soldiers and officers played a great part in the slave's moral training, and religious worship. They secretly instructed small gatherings of slaves, at night. The points stressed most were, obedience and the evils of stealing. There were some sections where masters were liberal in their views toward their slaves, and permitted them to worship openly" (Volume XVII, 1941:26).
For me, my faith compels me to share the truth of Christianity. It has not always been wielded the way Jesus would expect. Being a Christian alone does not guarantee that everything we do is the right thing or the best thing. Christianity is not a seal of approval, it is a conviction, there to encourage us when we fail and to remind us of the hope for a better way, if we have the courage to take it.
And this is precisely why the names of Confederate leaders should not be on our public school buildings. Jackson, Lee, Ashby and other Confederate leaders chose state over faith. They chose an established economic tradition and worldview over the unconditional love of Christ. That love accepts all of us and places equal worth in the hearts of all men and women.
Shenandoah County, Va, has a unique and valuable biography little known in the community: The Narrative of Bethany Veney: A Slave Woman, compiled in 1889. It is one of several narratives from Virginia that you can read to gain an understanding of the important roles enslaved African Americans played in shaping the economy and infrastructure of our country, of our state, of our county. It shares the life story of Bethany Johnson Veney, who was born on 19 March 1812 in Shenandoah County (an area now part of Page County at its formation in 1831 - a time when approximately 12.5% of our county's population consisted of enslaved individuals). Through ingenuity, hard work, and strong faith, she survived an extremely difficult time in our county's history.
Here's an extremely small excerpt:
"Several months passed, and I became a mother... you can never understand the slave mother's emotions as she clasps her new-born child, and knows that a master's word can at any moment take it from her embrace... and feels that the law holds over her no protecting arm, it is not strange that, rude and uncultured as I was, I felt all this, and would have been glad if we could have died together there and then" (1889:26).
"I was well known in all the parts around as a faithful, hard-working woman, when well treated, but ugly and wilful, if abused beyond a certain point. McCoy had bought me away from my child; and now, he thought, he could sell me, if carried to Richmond, at a good advantage. I did not think so; and I determined, if possible, to disappoint him" (1889:27).
Sometime later, Betty is working for copper miners on Stony Man, when she musters the courage to ask them to buy her freedom, which they do on 27 December 1858. She shares: "Not long afterward... Messrs. Adams and Butterworth suspended operations at the mine, and, taking me and my boy, turned their faces homeward. They at that time expected to return... However, before their business arrangements for going were matured, John Brown had made his invasion into Virginia; and the excitement that followed made it unsafe for any one who sympathized with or defended him to be seen in any Southern State.
"Then followed the War of the Rebellion; and it was not till a much later date, and in a different way from what I had anticipated when I left, that I saw again the old fields where I had toiled and suffered, and grasped again the hands that before had beaten and bruised me" (1889:36-37).
Bethany Johnson Veney's narrative is not part of common knowledge among Shenandoah County residents. Here, her 103-year life, and the long lives of other enslaved African Americans who faced impossible odds to survive, are overshadowed by a four-year civil war. Their deeds, their faith, their examples are unremembered, while the men who fought for their continued subjugation are even today lauded as a more acceptable example of justice and character for our children. You should be asking yourself, why?
Such a valuable primary source document written by someone who was born in our county should be required reading for our students. And for leaders in our community, too. Instead, we require 5th graders to visit the New Market Battlefield to learn about a battle that prolonged the Civil War and the freedom of millions of people.
Please take time to familiarize yourself with such narratives as that of Bethany Johnson Veney. When we look at our history from all perspectives, and not just the predominant perspective, it helps us make decisions today that promote true peace and inclusivity for everyone in the community - including the names we should keep in our public school buildings.
This week, on December 6th in 1865, the required 27 states ratified the Constitution's Thirteenth Amendment, which was proclaimed on December 18th of that same year to the citizens of The United States of America. This was a monumental time of Reconstruction after the American Civil War. The 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery as an accepted economic practice) was the first of three amendments (the 14th: qualifying citizenship to formerly enslaved Americans and the 15th: the right of all citizens to vote) that began the journey of claiming equity for formerly enslaved African Americans in our country.
This is extremely important to recognize. The leaders of the Confederate States of America duly proclaimed the purpose of the CSA. The clearest explanation comes from vice president Stephens in 1861 in a speech he gave only days before the first shots of the American Civil War. Here is a portion of what he says regarding the new government: "No citizen is deprived of life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of his peers under the laws of the land. The great principle of religious liberty, which was the honor and pride of the old constitution, is still maintained and secured. All the essentials of the old constitution, which have endeared it to the hearts of the American people, have been preserved and perpetuated" (Stephens, 1861).
Stephens continues in the same speech, after laying out some of the changes in the CSA's new constitution relative to that of the USA: "The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution" (Stephens, 1861).
Life. Liberty. Property. These were fruits for CSAmerican citizens. Negroes, as Stephens refers to Africans - even those born on American soil - were not citizens. They were Property. The foundation of the CSA was on the inferiority of peoples our Constitution proclaims today as equal citizens!
Lee, Jackson, and Ashby were leaders fighting for the CSA. Ultimately they were fighting for the advancement of Stephens' ideals and truths about this new government. It is unacceptable to honor any Confederate leader by using his name on public school buildings in the United States of America today. To do so would go against what our Constitution proclaims, what our country stands for, and what our leaders today should be upholding.
Desmond Tutu, who headed the Truth & Reconciliation Commission following apartheid in South Africa (which spanned from 1948 to 1991), said: “If we are going to move on and build a new kind of world community there must be a way in which we can deal with a sordid past. The most effective way would be for the perpetrators or their descendants to acknowledge the awfulness of what happened and the descendants of the victims to respond by granting forgiveness, providing something can be done, even symbolically, to compensate for the anguish experienced, whose consequences are still being lived through today. It may be, for instance, that race relations in the United States will not improve significantly until Native Americans and African Americans get the opportunity to tell their stories and reveal the pain that sits in the pit of their stomachs as a baneful legacy of dispossession and slavery. We saw in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission how the act of telling one's story has a cathartic, healing effect.”
In 2020, the change of public school names from Stonewall Jackson and Ashby-Lee to Mountain View and Honey Run was such a symbolic decision; because, all three of the last names incorporated in these schools (chosen during or right after the Civil Rights time period) were ultimately derived from the names of Confederate leaders that fought in a Civil War to uphold the right to a new country, with slavery as its economic base, separate from The United States of America.
When I heard about the previous school board's decision to consider changing the names in June 2020, one of the very first things I did was to call my African American friends that still lived in Shenandoah County, Va, to ask their perspectives on such a decision. Every single one of them wanted the same thing: new names. Public School names that represented them, too. Whether or not you agree, at the base of this issue is one thing: what message did it send to local African Americans and Indigenous Peoples, whose ancestors were enslaved during and before the Civil War, to have the names of people who fought for the continued enslavement of their families on public school buildings they were required by law to attend?
The decision to make sure public school names are inclusive and representative of everyone in a community falls on the leaders of that community. Such decisions may not be popular, especially when justice is ignored for sixty years as it was in Shenandoah County, Va, but they must be just for everyone within a community.
As Henri Nouwen wrote, "Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own." Mountain View and Honey Run are not divisive or offensive school names. They aim to include and to represent all, not just some. What message would it send to revert to the previous Confederate-leader-based names in another year?
During this time of giving thanks, I just want to say how grateful I am for the names of the schools on southern campus in Shenandoah County, Virginia. Honey Run, derived from a nearby mountain creek that feeds into Smith Creek and thus onto the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, is such an apt image for what happens to elementary school children as they move into North Fork Middle School.
In personal conversations, I always hear how much people love the view of Short Mountain and The Knob from Mountain View High School. It's the most iconic aspect of the school's location: the mountain view. The presence of mountains is something students - no matter their gender, religion, ethnicity, or political affiliation - from Edinburg to Mount Jackson, Quicksburg to New Market, Basye to Fort Valley can celebrate and savor with commonality.
Even as early as the 1730s, when the first settlers were arriving in the county, the waterways and mountain views must have been as inspiring and vital as they are to us today. They are peace-filled landmarks and bring people together in positive ways, which is precisely what a school system is designed to do. And for this, I am grateful.
Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears has some fabulous quotes. I'll share one of them here because it follows this theme of gratefulness: “We have a saying in church, ‘I may not be what I’m supposed to be, but I ain’t what I used to be.’ And that’s America. We are not back in 1963, when my father arrived at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and things were very bad for us as Black people. Are there changes that need to be made? Most assuredly. There is no country in this world that does not suffer from racism…But you have seen people who are dying to cross the border into America because they know that if they can get their foot on American soil, the trajectory of their lives will change — as it did for my father.”
I'm grateful Shenandoah County, like America, is on this side of the Civil Rights Movement, and that it is a place of hope and refuge for so many people from so many backgrounds. And that is precisely why the new names are so important, not only for the mental health of our children, but also the well being and commonality of everyone in our community.
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 seven 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.