The public middle school with West Virginia’s highest percentage of Black students will no longer be named after a Confederate general, the Kanawha County Board of Education decided Monday.
The vote was unanimous in favor of removing the name of Stonewall Jackson from Stonewall Jackson Middle, on Charleston’s West Side. A new name has not yet been selected, and it wasn’t yet clear how one would be chosen.
Becky Jordon, whom the school board unanimously picked Monday as its new president, said Superintendent Tom Williams would work with the school’s principal on that process. Jordon said the board will ultimately choose the new name.
Board member Tracy White said she would like to see a committee formed, and board member Ryan White (no relation) said it should include members from the school and some members appointed by each board member.
The new name will be chosen by Oct. 15.
Among the names suggested by those who pushed for the change are Booker T. Washington, who was enslaved as child and spent much of his youth in Malden and founded Tuskegee University; and Katherine Johnson, the West Virginia-born mathematician whose calculations accomplished the United States’ first spaceflight and humanity’s first voyage to the moon.
Both were Black. All the board members are white.
Roughly 150 people had shown up to the county school system’s headquarters on Elizabeth Street by the 4 p.m. start of the meeting. The vast majority, if not all, wore masks.
Leisha Gibson, a Black woman who until recently lived on the West Side, sat on a curb just above the sidewalk holding a sign that said “Change the Name.” She sang the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” with an altered verse inserted.
“Oh deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall change the name, someday,” she sang.
The school, opened in 1940 as a high school, has borne Jackson’s name for 80 years.
Bishop Wayne Crozier, a Black pastor of a church on Charleston’s East End, was a lead organizer of the push to change the name.
He said he wanted a tangible victory from this historic national moment, in which protests against racism have swept the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death. A now-former Minneapolis police officer has been charged with killing Floyd, and three others have been charged with aiding and abetting the killing.
Crozier, the first speaker at Monday’s meeting, told the board that he believed — correctly, it turned out — that they would all support the change. So he talked about a future goal, one West Side community members have struggled with in the past: raising the school’s test scores.
“This is not just about a name, this is about a culture change,” he said. As he finished speaking, a cheer from the crowd was heard outside.
As part of the backlash, protesters have been successfully pushing to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces and to rename buildings that honor Confederates.
The middle school, formerly a high school, was built on a former plantation and originally allowed white people only.
But today, it’s 42% Black — the highest proportion among public middle schools in West Virginia, according to the state Department of Education.
According to Jackson biographer James I. Robertson Jr., Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was born in Clarksburg in 1824, when it was still part of Virginia.
He rose from a rough childhood to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, fought in the Mexican-American War and taught at the Virginia Military Institute, according to Robertson.
Jackson joined the Confederacy after Virginia’s secession from the United States in 1861.
He became famous for his victories against the Union army in the Civil War, which saw hundreds of thousands of Americans killed and was fought largely by the Confederacy to preserve slavery.
“Jackson repeatedly sought permission to lead a force into northwest Virginia to save his home area from being kept in the Union by federal invaders,” Robertson wrote in an entry on Jackson in the West Virginia Encyclopedia, a project of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
Jackson died from friendly fire that resulted in pneumonia on May 10, 1863, about a month before West Virginia officially became a state after seceding from Virginia.
Jackson, himself, owned enslaved people.
In 2015, the board, which had two different members back then, didn’t heed a call to change the name. That failed push came from local professor Gregg Suzanne Ferguson, who had been a substitute teacher in the school and a counselor at a nearby elementary school.
She said she faced public ridicule from board members, along with threats from others, at that time.
Ferguson, who is Black, was part of this year’s successful push. The school system limited how many people could enter the board room Monday, citing the pandemic, so she and others gathered around a car out front to listen to the vote.
“I am quivering right now,” she said. “I feel like I’m on a cloud.”
“On one hand I’m overjoyed, on the other hand, it’s bittersweet,” she said. “I wish it didn’t have to take the deaths of unarmed black men to raise our consciousness.”
But she said “it’s better late than never, and we can move forward from this point, understanding that we have allies in high places, and our educator-colleagues really do care about the whole child.”