Week 8: 250 Years
Two-hundred and fifty (250) years ago, Shenandoah County was founded, but as Dunmore County in 1772. At the time it also included a large portion of Page County, which was formally founded in 1831.
As a homeschooling educator, I find timelines really helpful. They provide appropriate scale for historical events. Without them, community bias, formed from the perspective of a dominant social, religious, political, or cultural class, can harbor one event as more important or significant for a place than another. A community's identity should be inclusive and celebrate what everyone who lives there holds in common.
Our forefathers (and mothers) understood this. It's why they changed the name from Dunmore County to Shenandoah County - to prove loyalty and claim an identity that resonated with what would become a new country that was already forming even then. Our ancestors were relinquishing the colonial mindset for an American mindset. My focus here is not a philosophical or moral debate on what these mindsets look like - it's simply to lay out a rudimentary timeline and to point out that names change and have changed in our county over time. Whether it's the county name; Cabin Hill to Conicville (or Conicsville, as many locals call it); Mount Pleasant to Mount Jackson (alas, developed from a poorly thought-out act of the Va General Assembly, in 1826, to honor Andrew Jackson, of all people).
For 93 of those 250 years, or 37% of our county's foundational timeline, the institute of slavery was practiced by plantation owners in our county's part of the valley and by families that owned one or two enslaved individuals to work on their farms or help raise their children. In 1865, the 13th Amendment formally ended this institution (unless American citizens were imprisoned, anyway) as a widely practiced economic basis for our country; however, laws sprang up all across American states and territories to attempt control of social and economic standards for communities - ones that limited what minority groups could do, and in many cases become. That means 99 more years (or approximately 39.6% of 250 years) saw segregation in our own county, as well as sharecropping, unequal educational standards among our students, and other methods of intimidation from a dominant class until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which our then school board signed as readily as the Resolution Against Racism that circulated across the country and which our Board of Supervisors and School Board signed in 2020.
Looking at the numbers, that leaves only approximately 58 years (or 23% of our county's history) during which a more level playing field has been created for all American citizens in our county. Weighing 77% with that 23% of our county's history, any public school names should draw from historically significant people that worked for equality and justice and that left a positive mark on our communities and for all our people. Or, even better, any public school names should draw from geographically significant names - the environment that cradles our lives and marks impressions of hope, of possibility, and of comfort in each of us.
In choosing names for three public high schools, literally built in our county to educate only our population's white children, it is essential to recognize the injustice that was done when Stonewall Jackson was chosen out of all the possible names that could have been considered. Until the late 1950s, school names had typically been taken from the name of the community: Forestville, Edinburg, Strasburg. Using the name of a CSA general was a massive deviation that made a political statement.
We'll talk about that more later, but for now, I just want to point out one thing: Thomas Jackson was not born in nor lived in Shenandoah County. Neither did Lee or Ashby, for that matter. And before the American Civil War and more specifically, 1861, these three names were not known together and never all three in this place at the same time. For argument's sake, we'll take the whole of the Civil War, even though Jackson was only in the Shenandoah Valley for an extremely brief amount of time. Four years is a mere 1.6% of that 250 year timeline. With a current population of approximately 44,000 - I should think that over a 250 year history (99.6%, plus or minus 0.3%, of which has nothing to do with Stonewall Jackson), there would be hundreds of thousands more appropriate names of people who actually were born in or lived in Shenandoah County, Va, to choose from if our goal in choosing names for public spaces is significant to a positive community identity, based on inclusivity and recognizing what brings us together the most. And, let's be honest. How many of us today actually knew Thomas Jackson?
Community, when brought together peacefully and with good intention, is something to celebrate, especially into the new year.
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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.