In 1840, a citizen of Shenandoah County "calling to mind the certainty of death and the uncertainty what hour" made a last will and testament beginning with the emancipation of his slave:
"First, I direct and will that my black boy Alfred Lee my slave, he shall be free after harvest so soon as the work may be over provided he goes out of the County & the State" (Will Book V, p. 172).
The reference of removal from the county and state is directly linked to Virginia laws at that time. A brief aside: a lot of the information I am referencing in this letter comes from an extremely valuable resource: Chronology of World Slavery by Junius Rodriquez (1999). More specific to the Virginia law that defines the principles of the above emancipation: in 1806, Virginia Assembly enacted legislation that required anyone manumitted after May 1st of that year to leave the state within one year (Rodriguez 1999:253). Although it's uncomfortable to hear, state and federal laws prior to the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments are full of legally-binding decisions designed to control or establish standards for free and enslaved African Americans. Much of the social traditions followed even in Shenandoah County, which had been formally established in 1772 as Dunmore County, had been first established with the 1705 Virginia Slave Code. Such laws included recognizing slaves as chattel property; forbidding blacks to serve as witnesses in court; and defining slavery as a legal condition limited to blacks (Rodriguez 1999:211). In 1723, further discrimination resulted in higher colonial taxes imposed on blacks and Native Americans, as well as free blacks being denied the right to carry weapons (aka, their Second Amendment rights, which our county loves so much) (Rodriguez 1999:216).
While we can look as far back as colonial Virginia for state laws that deny civil rights to people based on race, for the sake of this letter, I'm focusing on the time period following our country's formation. According to the American Bar Association, racism is "the unintended (but often foreseeable) consequence of choices." The Science Museum of Virginia defines racism, or identifying differences in ethnicities and skin colors "and promoting negative attitudes toward people with those differences" as a learned behavior. Although it's a negative catchword in at least 36 states around the USA, critical race theory (CRT), which was officially introduced as a term in 1989, simply states that race is not a biological truth, but a social construct. And, that race has been embedded into systems and institutions in such a way as to create inequality. A quick perusal of the laws and wills we have been analyzing and discussing quickly reveal the truth of CRT: the United States of America was founded on principles of inequality and racism toward people of color. And even today our country continues to draw lines and enact laws that generate inequality based on socially-constructed labels. That means that decisions across the country and at every level must be made with a real sensitivity to how people of all labels have been treated and should be treated, now and in the future.
It's also important to note that CRT is a higher education academic topic - not taught in the primary or secondary public schools within our country. I can vouch for that, since I was never taught about Virginia's slave code in the SCPS system; and although I do remember hearing about Jim Crow, it was always in association with the deep south, never Virginia. That said, we do a major disservice to our community when we don't talk about these issues honestly and openly - recognizing all of our history, not just what we were taught to believe about our country, our state, and our community from the perspective of an unbalanced majority that controls these narratives. So, let's take an honest look at just a handful of the laws in place between 1772 and 1861:
In 1793, Virginia legislature passed a law that made it illegal for any free black person to enter our state (Rodriquez 1999:243).
In 1820, a presidential order allowed the U.S. Army to deny blacks and mulattoes the right to serve in the U.S. military (Rodriguez 1999:265).
In 1839, the U.S. State Department denied a black applicant's passport request on the grounds that blacks were not considered citizens (Rodriguez 1999:297).
In 1851, Virginia legislature strengthened the 1806 law requiring recently freed blacks to leave the state, by adding the risk of re-enslavement (Rodriguez 1999: 322).
In 1860, Virginia legislature made it possible for free blacks, found guilty of an act that would normally lead to imprisonment, to be sold into slavery instead (Rodriguez 1999:346).
And that takes us to 1861, when Virginia seceded from The United States of America. As I have mentioned before, CSA vice president Alexander Stephens, clearly stated the foundational principle of the Confederate States of America, which Virginia was part of: "the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is a natural and normal condition . . . our new Government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth" (Rodriguez 1999:349). This statement is precisely what CRT is getting at: race is a social construct and yet, racism has been embedded in systems and institutions. CSA documents and speeches by leaders clearly reveal that it was based on racism. And this is why CSA leaders, including generals and soldiers, should not have their names on any public buildings that are funded by the USA today. These leaders fought to uphold the laws described above. They supported pro-slavery, pro-inequality measures.
The United States of America, since its foundation, has stumbled toward true equality for all. Reverting to names with Confederate leaders for the southern campus Shenandoah County Public Schools would be an impediment to promoting a message of true equality.
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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.