In conversations with neighbors over the years, there are two points from this entire 52 Weeks that were most influential in understanding the inappropriateness of Confederate leaders for school names in Shenandoah County, Va.
1. Thomas Jackson and Turner Ashby died during the American Civil War on May 10, 1863 and June 6, 1862, respectively. Their last breaths still held the oaths of allegiance they took for the Confederate States of America. Their death songs were acts of war against the United States of America - even leading others to acts of treason, as well. Robert Lee, while he did not die during the Civil War, was the paramount general in the Confederate States of America. He intentionally chose treason, rather than leading the USA's army. Are these men the best examples for youth in 21st century America? How can we expect our school children to recite an allegiance to the flag of the USA, if many of the generals we choose to honor didn't even do that at the end of their lives? How can we expect our school children to be, as our Shenandoah County Public Schools division advises, individuals "who have the skills, ability, and attitudes to succeed as productive citizens and develop a mindset of life-time learning" and our school environment to be one that encourages and supports "trust, mutual respect, open communications, and risk taking" with such men honored? Instead, their example encourages division and fighting against those you disagree with.
2. After the American Civil War, from 1870 until 1964, our state and our county codified segregated schools for our children. Shenandoah County, VA, led unequal white and Negro primary schools for almost an entire century! And, rather than welcoming African American and Hispanic high school youth into our county schools during that time, our county leaders forced them to find alternative means, such as a boarding school in Manassas or a black high School out of county to gain their diplomas, or to simply go without diplomas. Our leaders did not give children of color the same opportunities as white youth, but eventually pointed them toward the door, encouraging them to leave. Is this the same message we want to send to our African American, Hispanic, or other minority youth in the 21st century?
For the last year, I have offered research-based primary source data, verbatim from county, state, and national records, so that you could read this for yourself. I have tried to offer a perspective that has been missing from our county since its formation in 1772: that of African American ancestors. Our public library has a collection of photographs (the Morrison Studio collection) with their faces captured when their names are lost - I'm asking you to remember them in your decisions as much as you remember Confederate ancestors. These are just a small sampling of the people from that collection:
- Three unidentified children
- Unidentified woman standing
- Unidentified man with dog
- Unidentified woman seated
- The Timbers family
- Rev. Thomas & family
- Earl Dyer
- Unidentified Girl with Josephine Benchoff
We continue to ignore the meaningful contributions of African Americans to our county, whether that was during a time period many were intentionally enslaved for economic exploitation or during a time period they were belittled and their American rights were played with like kites held largely by unsympathetic white leaders. African Americans and individuals that do not match the mold of a majority of our community members continue to make positive and important contributions to our county. Shenandoah County, Va, is made up of more than just those we want to see. Our leaders must choose to make decisions for their community, not just for their constituents and not just along their party queues. Some decisions really are above politics, and this is one of them.
Most importantly, these 52 weeks are not about shame or blame (even though, when I was leading conversations at Sam Moore Slave Cemetery for seven years, shame was a consistent first expression many who did not know this history felt). This is about awareness. Without awareness, leaders have made decisions on behalf of others that have been detrimental to their livelihoods and to the success of America, itself. Without awareness, leaders today will make decisions on behalf of the entire community (not just their constituents) that make the wrong statements.
In personal conversations, and even firsthand, I have learned that there are real threads of meanness and racism in our county. But there are also threads of kindness and positive community. My posts have been a passion of respect and love - encouraging all of us to cling closely to the community we choose to be. To know the hard history so that we can make better choices together.
There is an extremely important aspect of this conversation that I have not covered yet. And that is one of faith. I will openly admit that I am a Christian in a nation that is losing confidence in Christianity offering anything but division and bigotry. I was taught to put God first and to treat others the way you would want to be treated. Bottom line: the names of Confederate leaders - Jackson, Ashby, and Lee included - have been raised to a position of idolatry in our communities. In many ways, they are wound up in a Confederate faith that is not only pervasive, but harmful for our youth and for our country. My personal example is Jesus. And when I look at Jesus, I don't see Jackson. I definitely don't see Ashby. And I don't see Lee. Jesus did not take up arms or harm anyone. He did not lead others down the wrong paths. And he offered unconditional love to everyone - not just those that looked like him or that had the right heritage. It is past time to let the Confederacy rest in museums and in history books.
The importance here is in establishing community identity through public spaces. Public spaces are those parts of our communities in which every person gathers to appreciate what we hold in common. When only perspectives from a majority group are established in these public spaces, there is no longer true peace or an understanding of inclusivity. It is vital to choose an identity that doesn't alienate and doesn't include unnecessary political innuendos. A name such as Stonewall Jackson (or even Mount Jackson, for that matter, which was politically named for Andrew Jackson) makes a political statement.
The term political means, according to Merriam-Webster, "involving or charged or concerned with acts against a government or a political system." Not only did Thomas Jackson fight against our country, the United States of America; but, his name was slapped on a public school amidst state policy of massive resistance, which our county's school board, at the time, embraced. The name Mountain View is not political. If the 2020 school board had wanted to make it political, they would have chosen the name of an African American teacher or leader in our county to replace Jackson's name. But they didn't. They chose peace. They chose to focus on what brings us together.
Our ancestors in the 1700s did not come to the colonial backcountry of Virginia, to the land that would become Shenandoah County, because of Confederate leaders - they came because of the beauty of the mountains, the abundance of resources, and the establishment of communities trying to live in peace with one another. It wasn't a perfect place and it wasn't a place without challenges - especially in terms of how many viewed African Americans and similar minority groups, as well as survived attacks by Indigenous groups that were not happy to see settlers in areas they saw as home; however, it was a place of community. A place of barn-raisings. A place of hayings and meals together under tall shade trees when the work was done. A place where neighbors offered helping hands whenever they could and paused along the road to chat. And these are the things that draw people to Shenandoah County today: the kindness and welcome of genuine people, the beauty of the mountains and rivers, the hiking trails that lead into mountain laurel lined forests with inspiring views, and a way of life that is less hurried and willing to savor what makes life worth living. What makes life worth living isn't war and it isn't politics. Both of which were embraced by the old southern campus school names. Instead, the names Honey Run and Mountain View promote a peaceful space that is worth celebrating and that can truly draw all people together (even those that don't have Confederate ancestors) without subliminal messages.
Ben Carson, in Created Equal: The Painful Past, Confusing Present, and Hopeful Future of Race in America, writes: “...is it possible for us to have a society that minimizes rather than maximizes the differences between people of different races? We all have the same kind of brain and similar needs and desires. We tend to act the same way in certain circumstances, and we laugh and cry for the same reasons. As we explore many deep issues surrounding race, let us remember that celebrating our diversity is a good thing as long as we don't permit that celebration to morph into a hierarchical system that values one group over another” (2022:33-34).
In Remember: The Journey to School Integration, Toni Morrison shares: "This... is about you. Even though the main event in the story took place many years ago, what happened before it and after it is now part of all our lives... remembering is the mind's first step toward understanding" (2004:3). She continues: "Remembering can be painful, even frightening. But it can also swell your heart and open your mind" (2004:5). Morrison dedicates her book to Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley, who died in the racist bombing of their Birmingham church on September 15, 1963. She concludes:
"Things are better now.
Much, much better.
But remember why and please
remember us" (2004:72).
Now, it's time for you to decide. Which side will you take? The side that resurrected pro-segregation, massive resistance or the side that recognized biased barriers such as Confederate names on public schools and intentionally chose to work toward peace-twined names that aimed to unite the community in positive ways? The national example of political leaders right now is atrocious. Let's show that Shenandoah County, Va, can be better, by striving to move forward as a diverse populace with different ideas about how to tackle the challenges we face today, but all aimed at creating a caring community, together.
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 eight 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.
52 / Remembering & Moving On
51 / Integration & Teachers
50 / In Our Own Community
49 / S J H S
48 / Not One Positive Step
47 / Maintaining Public Peace
46 / Brown v. Board
45 / Rebuilding a Pro-Confederate South
44 / An Out-of-area Education
43 / Where's the 'Common Sense Consideration'?
42 / Education Without Heart
41 / Self-Preservation
40 / Free Public Schools
39 / The Mask of Defiance
38 / The Golden Door of Freedom
37 / Prejudicial to our Race
36 / Are We Compassionate?
35 / Community
34 / Need for Radical Change
33 / Bitter Prejudice
32 / Fear of 'Negro Equality'
31 / Rachel, Lashed to Death
30 / The Whim of the Court: A Look at Jacob, Stacy, Lett; March & Peter; Jeffrey & Peter
29 / Ben, Tom, Ned, Clary, & two men from the furnace
28 / The Loss of Fortune
27 / James Scott, A Free Man
26 / The Unremembered, The Unheard
25 / The American Cause
24 / Tithables for the County & Parish
23 / Satisfactory Proof of Being Free
22 / Building Community Takes Trust
21 / Jacob's Case
20 / Whose Control?
19 / Racial Classifications
18 / The Cost of Freedom in 1840
17 / Sale of Children
16 / Bequeathal of Future Increase
15 / The First Annual
14 / From a Descendant of a CSA Soldier
13 / True Americanism
12 / Slavery. A Hot Topic.
11 / Real Character
10 / Real Apologies
9 / Freedom from Fear
8 / 250 Years
7 / The Courage of Christ
6 / Whose Narratives?
5 / The 13th Amendment
4 / Symbolic Act of Justice
3 / Giving Thanks
2 / Confederate Congress
1 / Veteran's Day