Last week, the Kanawha County Board of Education officially dropped Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s name from the middle school that bore it for 80 years.
Within days, the school system physically purged his name from the building. Now, the school board seems to be rushing to pick the name that could be on the building for decades to come. Two board members said they might vote on it at Thursday’s meeting, 6 p.m. at 200 Elizabeth St., in Charleston.
There are mixed messages on what the name should be, although there are a couple of repeated suggestions.
A Change.org online petition launched last month garnered about 6,600 signatures to rename Stonewall Jackson Middle to Katherine Johnson Middle. Johnson, a Black woman from White Sulphur Springs, was a pioneering NASA mathematician.
Johnson came in behind Tuskegee University founder and former Malden resident Booker T. Washington in an ad hoc vote among about 40 people who gathered on Charleston’s West Side to push for ditching the Confederate general’s name last month.
Also among the five names of prominent Black West Virginians proposed at that meeting:
- the Rev. Paul Gilmer Sr., a Charleston firefighter, community activist and former state higher education system leader;
- Black History Month founder and former Huntington principal Carter G. Woodson; and,
- civil rights leader and anti-apartheid activist Leon Sullivan.
Then, the day after the school board voted on July 6 to strike the name, the school system posted an online survey that was available for less than one week.
It allowed people to suggest any name. The survey put two generic names, West Side Middle, with 1,607 votes, and Charleston Middle, with 474 votes, at No. 1 and No. 3, respectively.
Katherine Johnson was No. 2, with 1,134 votes, Jack Perry was No. 4, with 334 votes, and Booker T. Washington was No. 5, with 313.
Perry was a coach for the middle school who died in 2018. He’s in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, according to his obituary.
A spokeswoman for the school system said the survey didn’t block multiple votes or votes from outside Kanawha County. The Change.org petition also didn’t confirm that voters were who they said they were.
Kitty Dooley, a West Side-based lawyer who also is on the board of West Virginia State University, a historically Black university, is advocating for Katherine Johnson Middle.
Dooley noted that Johnson’s name was backed by the Change.org petition and was among the five names submitted at the community meeting.
At that gathering, Bishop Wayne Crozier, the meeting organizer, said now-former superintendent Ron Duerring had requested five possible new names. So, those at that meeting on the West Side came up with five.
“I’m just troubled that they’ve gone away from the five names that were presented at the community meeting,” Dooley said, “because I don’t know what all is in that — what’s in the survey, what they will use it for, because, I mean, there weren’t any controls. You could say anything.”
Dooley, who is Black, said she was part of the group that helped raise $45,000 for renaming expenses. She said it would be “extremely disappointing” if one of the five names at the community meeting isn’t chosen.
“I reached out to people to raise money believing that the renaming would be that of a prominent African American,” she said, “so I just have concerns that, you know, that people will say that, if it’s not, then they were misled.”
Crozier, who also is Black, didn’t say so at the community meeting, but he said Tuesday it was always his understanding that the school system would do its own survey, plus solicit extra input from students.
Taylor Raab, the white West Side parent who started the Change.org petition, said he plans to appear at Thursday’s meeting to advocate for Johnson.
Becky Jordon, president of the all-white school board, said she wasn’t aware of the five names presented at the community meeting — even though Crozier said he gave them to Duerring.
But Jordon said she supported the school system’s survey regardless.
“Anybody could vote,” she said of the survey, “so I feel like it needed to be from the school system, and it went out.
“I think we’ve heard from the people,” Jordon added. “Why do we need to have studies and meetings? I feel like we’ve heard from a lot of people, and I also feel like we’re ready for a vote and I feel like there’s so much more we need to work on.”
Jordon mentioned needing to plan for restarting school in September.
Fellow board member Ryan White had publicly requested a committee on the name choice with some members picked by board members, but it was never formed.
“I see why it might be good to take care of this expediently,” he said. “It’s not something I’m going to make a big deal about.”
School naming might bring back bad memories on the West Side.
In 2009, the school system solicited input on what it should name an elementary school there.
The board then rejected the submitted names of two Black people — Mary C. Snow, Kanawha’s first Black post-integration principal, and Barack Obama, who was students’ No. 1 choice.
Board members then named the school West Side Elementary, mirroring what is today the No. 1 suggestion for the middle school from its survey.
But West Side community members back then pushed to rename the school after Mary C. Snow and, in 2012, the board changed the name to Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary.
Only Jordon and Jim Crawford remain on the five-member board from that time.