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.
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.