Virginia high school’s name change sparks fury and debate

WOODSTOCK, Va. — It was getting late, well past 10 p.m., when the Shenandoah County School Board finally addressed the issue that had hung over the county for two long and grueling years. Should Stonewall Jackson return?

“Discussion,” Marty Helsley, the chairman of the board, wearily announced. “Who wants to go first?”

Two years ago, in a summer marked by nationwide protests and marches, the country looked set to change dramatically. Governments from state houses to city councils have publicly moved to tackle long-neglected racist legacies, as policies and monuments that seemed permanent were quickly overturned.

But change itself is volatile. A political backlash formed almost immediately, and newly elected officials set to work to undo the rapid transformations of 2020. School boards across the country have canceled policies that emphasize anti-racism, and dozens of states have introduced measures that would restrict how race and history are taught. Glenn Youngkin, elected governor of Virginia last year, fulfilled a campaign promise on his first day in office in order an ending teaching “intrinsically divisive concepts” in schools.

The division in Shenandoah County over the past two years has been over Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate general, and whether his name should have remained attached to a local high school after six decades. It was quickly removed by a school board vote in the just emergency of 2020, and skirmishes have continued ever since in debates over history and democracy, whose grievances had been ignored.

The Civil War is not forgotten in Shenandoah County, a rural and almost entirely white county in northwest Virginia. Jackson’s troops camped on Rude’s Hill, just over a mile from the high school. The Battle of New Market was fought in the pastures about five miles to the south; Four miles north, in the small town of Mount Jackson, a well-maintained Confederate cemetery is guarded by a 119-year-old statue and monument declaring that no “brighter land had such a grand cause.” Closer to the school, in a quiet corner of wild meadow, is the small Corhaven Cemetery, once known as Sam Moore’s Slave Cemetery.

At present, the county has struggled. Family farms have closed and little has replaced them. Young people tend to leave to find work, and most of those who stay do not have a university degree.

But they have high school. The high school that was Stonewall Jackson is the smallest of three in the county, and former students believe it’s neglected when it comes to renovations and new facilities. But they proudly talk about cross-country, basketball and golf titles, brag about millions in college scholarships and unfailingly point out that the lights around the track and the concession stand were built largely by volunteers and donors.

The school was named when it was built in 1959, during the time of Virginia’s “massive resistance” to school integration. It was desegregated several years later, although there were rarely more than half a dozen black students at any one time. Over the decades, the Confederate imagery that permeated Stonewall – the flags, the crests, the mounted mascot – was slowly chipped away.

But the name stuck.

“I had my letter jacket with Stonewall Jackson on and someone stopped me when I was in Richmond and said, ‘Damn, are you even wearing that? “,” recalls Pam Steptoe, one of the only black students in the class of 1981. , she says, it seemed an immutable fact of life. “Do you want to talk to someone about why the grass is green?”

Then in May 2020, George Floyd was murdered and protest filled the country. Confederate statues have been taken down in Alabama, Texas, Tennessee and, perhaps most surprisingly, on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. The Governor of Virginia urged schools get rid of Confederate names, and back to backmany have.

Things had been relatively quiet on that front in Shenandoah County until the afternoon of July 4, when an item appeared on the agenda for the next school board meeting: “the names of schools”. Groups immediately formed on Facebook and petitions circulated, eventually garnering around 2,000 signatures in favor of the name change and 4,000 against. On July 9, in a virtual meeting, the board voted, 5 to 1, to remove the names of elementary school, Ashby-Lee — the names of two Confederate officers — and high school, Stonewall Jackson.

The fury was immediate. Outraged, Stonewall alumni packed school board meetings; a major school donor threatened to stop giving money; a member of the County Board of Supervisors sued to overturn the decision and filed a motion to remove the chairman of the board. The family members stopped talking. People were shouted at the farmers market.

For opponents of change, this was all an affront to democracy.

“It was the sneakiness,” said Renee Hawkins, 50, a Stonewall Jackson graduate. She and others filed a deluge of public records requests, revealing discussions leading up to the vote among board members, some of whom, Ms Hawkins said and others, had denied their intentions days before. “For 50 years people have gone to this school and never had a problem with the name.”

New school names—Honey Run for elementary school, Mountain View for high school—were chosen by committee and sewn onto uniforms, painted onto gymnasiums, and mounted on entrances. The common mascot, the generals, remained. Just like the backlash. In 2021, three new directors were elected, pledging to fight against “cancel culture” and the “the age of political indoctrinationand at a meeting in May, the council raised the issue of names again.

” It’s been two years ! shouted Mr Helsley, sitting in his work clothes at a local VFW station on the eve of Thursday’s vote. A fourth-generation dairy farmer and former college science teacher, Mr Helsley voted ‘no’ in 2020. He has nothing good to say about this decision-making process, calling it the worst course of action the council has ever taken socket. .

“The name was there for 60 years, they took it down in two weeks,” he said. They should have engaged with the public, he said, come up with a protocol, at least slow it down. “Empathy!” he is crying. “They didn’t show any.”

With the election of the new board members, Mr Helsley was seen as the deciding vote to bring Stonewall Jackson back. But once a hero to the people he calls “the right wingers”, he became a target when his current intentions were clarified. “Nothing good will come of putting it back on,” he said. He mentioned the hypothesis of a black student teacher coming to school or black basketball players arriving for a game in the gymnasium. How would they feel if Stonewall Jackson was brought back?

“Empathy!” he said again.

At the school board meeting on Thursday night, the public comments went on for a long time as usual. Current students spoke, as well as people who had graduated decades ago. Alumni of the Stonewall years hailed the general as a local hero, “a symbol of American courage and determination”, as one board member described him. Others lectured on democracy and the will of the people, accusing the previous council of sowing division where there was none.

“It’s the council’s responsibility to show these kids how democracy is supposed to work,” said Stuart Didawick, who said his family had “lived, worked and paid taxes” in the county for 256 years. “Show them that the wishes of the majority are carried out by those they have elected to represent them. If you vote against the wishes of the people you represent, you must be prepared to live with the consequences. »

Cynthia Walsh, one of two remaining board members who voted for the change in 2020, said a key obligation of a school board was to make sure all students felt welcome. She argued that this can sometimes take precedence over the wishes of the parents. “Sometimes we have to make difficult and unpopular decisions on behalf of all students,” she said as the evening grew late. “If we only listen to the majority, when will the minority ever be represented?”

Among the supporters of the original name change, a team that appeared to be outnumbered at Thursday’s meeting, were several black Stonewall graduates from several decades. Some grimaced when white speakers said they had never heard anyone complain about the name; no one heard, they said, because no one asked.

“I went to Stonewall, graduated in 1968, haven’t set foot on that ground since,” said Ann Keels, who had returned to the county after 45 years away. “I went to that school to see if the name had been changed,” she said. “I took a picture of it.”

Council members gave their speeches, including Mr Helsley, who broke down in tears. Then came the time for the vote.

“The motion ends in a 3-3 tie, so it’s lost,” Mr Helsley announced. “Okay, let’s move on.”

Everyone knew it wasn’t over. There is a school board election next year. “Names will be restored,” said one of the speakers. “All we need is a seat.”

Ms. Steptoe, of the Class of 1981, knew that was probably true. But she said it would be better than if the name never changed at all. She never thought it was possible, not in Shenandoah County, she said, and here it happened. “Even if it’s just for a minute,” she said.

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