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