In order to understand why Stonewall Jackson and Ashby-Lee are poor choices for names of public schools in Shenandoah County, Virginia, and, really, for any public school in The United States of America, we have to look at primary source documents. What has been the social environment in which African Americans, European Americans, Hispanic Americans, Indigenous Peoples, etc have lived in relationship with one another in a certain place? What laws have emerged in these locations? And how have these laws and social expectations impacted all people in their day to day living?
For the next few weeks, before diving into the time right before the Civil Rights Amendment, which is the context for the public high school's naming in 1959, we are going to consider the questions above in relation to Shenandoah County, Virginia. For the sake of time, the focus of these letters is going to revolve around African Americans, as well as anyone categorized by the county in public records as "mulatto," "slave," or "negro." That said, a study of laws and social standards related to other minority groups would prove just as important in making decisions within our local governments and school boards, today.
I remember the first time that I perused the Circuit Court Clerk's records. Rows of oversized leather-bound documents, handwritten in scrawling cursive, and later fading typeset, over the 250 years of the county's history fill the basement of one of the courthouses in downtown Woodstock. I was looking for documents a fellow historian, Nancy Stewart, had used in researching African American history over the course of her life. What sticks with me most are the smell of aging parchment, the buzz of fluorescent tube lights, and the crinkle of plastic on the chair where I sat - senses that represented everyday life - even while I read public records about the sale of slaves, whipping of African Americans, loss of goods and chattels, and bounding out of mulatto children in the very county in which I was born and raised.
Wills. Deeds. Bills of sale. Chancery cases. Pick up any of these books prior to 1865 and you will find the names of enslaved people interwoven with the affairs of the county. Lives that were deeply impacted by the leaders of Shenandoah County and the decisions made for them. People who were not free to go where they wanted to whenever they wanted to. People who were considered as property.
Today, we are focusing on wills, which were written by property owners to share what they wanted to happen to what they owned when they died. You will notice that I am intentionally leaving the names of the deceased off these wills. As I have said before, this is not about shame or blame. It's about recognizing the history of our county and making better decisions today in light of this truth. A handful of examples from will books in Shenandoah County share these wishes as they relate to enslaved people:
"I do give & bequeath to my well beloved wife... the plantation or tract of land whereon I now live...to be in her possession during life together with the following slaves viz. Boatswin, Nan, Mary, Winney, George, Tom, James, Ann, Suse & Jack to her only use & property during life... to be divided amongst my children as they come of age at the discretion of my wife... I give & bequeath to my son...all that plantation on tract of land whereon he now lives... to him his heirs and assigns for ever with the following slaves John, Nan Junior & Lydia to him & his heirs & assigns for ever... I give & bequeath to my daughter Elizabeth... to her & the heirs of her body for ever with the following slaves viz. Reuben & Doll with their increase to her & the heirs of her body forever... I give & bequeath to my daughter Rachel... the following slaves viz. Sall & Jenny Boatswin & Nan Senior to her & the heirs of her body forever with one sorrel mare to her. her heirs & assigns forever also fourteen head of cattle now in her possession & one feather bed & furniture to her & her heirs & assigns forever.... I give & bequeath to my Andrew... the following slaves Jim & Ann to him his heirs & assigns forever... I give & bequeath to my daughter Rebecca... the following slaves Mary & Suse to her & the heirs of her body forever... I give & bequeath to my daughter Mary Ann... the following slaves viz. Winney & George to her & the heirs of her body for ever... I give & bequeath to my son Jacob... all that plantation on tract of land adjoining the former tract willed to Andrew... with the following slave (Tom) to him & his heirs forever." (Will Book B, p. 86-87)
"I... will and direct that all my personal estate (except my slaves and that part of my wife Susannah may want and choose for her own use during her natural life)... and I do further will and direct that after the death of my said wife Susannah my negro woman slave Rosena and her future increase shall go and I do will and devise her and her increase to my five children..." (Will Book V, p. 38-39)
"I give and bequeath unto my beloved wife... all my land, Negroes, and personal estate, during her natural life to carry on the farm and support and educate my children the same as if I was present myself... All my other land not mentioned above, Negroes and personal estate, I give to my other six children after the death of my wife." (Will Book V, p. 45)
"I will that my debts and funeral expences be paid as soon as convenient after my decease, and should my personal estate not be sufficient for that purpose, my slaves that are able to work for wages shall be hired out til my debts are paid. After the payment of my debts I will and direct that my slaves be divided among my heirs, equally, my grandchildren receiving what their father or mother would receive if living." (Will Book V, p. 97)
"I give to my beloved wife, for and during her natural life, all that part of my real estate whereon we now live, being about one third part of my real estate in the County of Shenandoah... Also I give to my said beloved wife, the following slaves and other property which be entirely for her own use and at her disposal; namely, Jesse and his wife, Claressy, George Hite, James Marshall and his wife Mary, Nancy and her two sons, Anthony and William, my carriage and two carriage horses, four work horses, the choice of my stock, with their geer, a good wagon and all other farming utencils, six of the choice of my milch cows, together with all my household and kitchen furniture." (Will Book V, p. 115)
These are just a few examples from Shenandoah County, Virginia. Notice the language that is used - these wills do not mention emancipation, but continued enslavement, not only of the human beings named, but even of any future descendants they may have. In addition, notice that often it was the enslaved people who were working to pay off the debts of the enslaving family, even after the death of the enslaving property owner. This is a legacy of enslavement braided into the fabric of many Shenandoah County families!
Davis in Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World shares how enslaved children often didn't know they were slaves. "The shock of coming to terms with a slave identity was then devastating, especially in a country that talked of liberty and equality and took such pride in disavowing hereditary titles and aristocratic status" (2006:199). Current leaders cannot ignore this aspect of our county's history when making decisions that impact descendants not only of families that enslaved, but also of families that were enslaved. Lingering messages of inequality from the Confederate States of America have no place defining the identity of public schools in The United States of America today.
Leave a Reply.
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.