Week 12: Slavery. A Hot Topic.
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.
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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.