Should we continue to have a statue of Stonewall Jackson on the West Virginia Capitol grounds? He was a leader of a rebellion against the United States, a leader in a war fought to preserve slavery. Maybe we should just take him down, forget about him.
On the other hand, Stonewall Jackson was a real person, a son of what is now West Virginia. Even if it was for an ignoble cause, he served nobly. He is part of our history. We can’t just pretend he never existed. We all need to know history, the story of how we came to be who we are today. Maybe we should leave him up, as a part of our story.
While Stonewall Jackson, the man, is a part of our history and tells one story, the presence of Stonewall Jackson the statue tells a more ominous story, one that we should quit telling.
In the long sweep of history the story of race relations in this country is a hopeful one. It is full of steps forward both big and small, little steps back, zigs, zags and, sometimes, big steps back. On the whole, however, it points toward a country where there really is liberty and justice for all.
Of course, it would almost have to point upward. Considering where we started, there was hardly any other direction. While slavery existed in many places for much of human history, ours was the particularly pernicious form known as chattel slavery, based upon race. In many other cultures, slaves had been taken as prisoners of war. They were initially bound to their masters, but it was possible for them to advance to the point that they no longer were slaves. They might have been slaves, but their children did not automatically become slaves.
In our version, slaves were owned. No matter how smart they were or how hard they worked, they were still slaves. No matter what they did, their children were slaves, treated as property capable of being bought and sold.
From this lowly beginning, there was progress. While there was no national law forbidding slavery, it was outlawed in several states. In 1776, our founding documents declared that “all men are created equal” and that they were entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There was no indication that those who wrote those words believed that Black people (or women of any race, for that matter) were included. At least the words were there.
For most of the century that followed, there were plans that many hoped would enable slavery to die out on its own. There were proposals to limit it, proposals to abolish it. At the same time, there were proposals to expand it.
Finally, after dozens — if not hundreds — of failed efforts at compromise, there was nothing left to do but shoot it out. The Civil War brought about the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in most of the states where it had been legal. The aftermath of the war brought amendments to our Constitution abolishing slavery, declaring that all people had full citizenship and guaranteeing voting rights. While the words of the documents did not always make it so on the ground, it was an enormous step forward.
The post-war period was full of zigs and zags, steps forward and back. In many places, Black people gained unprecedented political power. There also was the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and efforts to terrorize Black people. There was the founding of the U.S. Department of Justice and its mission to crack down on the Klan and protect the rights of Black people. That was followed by a decision by the federal government to abandon its efforts to enforce civil rights in the South. On the heels of this decision came decades of legal segregation, state-sanctioned discrimination and limited progress for Black people.
This is where Stonewall Jackson the statue enters the story. Stonewall Jackson the man had already made his history, back during the Civil War, when he fought bravely and well, but on the side of those who wanted to preserve slavery.
His statute came on the scene in 1910, when the Daughters of the Confederacy got permission to erect a Stonewall Jackson statue on the Capitol grounds.
The statue was installed with great fanfare. According to newspaper accounts of the time, the crowd of 5,000 people included several wearing Lily White buttons. This was a reference to a movement two years earlier that sought to disenfranchise Black voters and enact Jim Crow laws.
So, what story does Stonewall Jackson the statue tell? It announced to the world that West Virginia wanted the long, fitful progress that we had made toward a society with liberty and justice for all to stop. There had been progress toward equal justice but, apparently for many West Virginians, enough was enough. What better way to announce that this equal rights business had gone far enough than to honor a man who gave his life fighting that slavery might continue?
Stonewall Jackson the man’s story is still in the history books. He was a real man, a part of the history of our state. We can celebrate his skill as a commander, his valor in battle, his Christian faith. He is part of our story and should stay in the history books.
Stonewall Jackson the statue tells a different story. The story it tells is that there was a time when West Virginia looked around at the progress that Black people had made and said, “Stop!” If we leave the statue up, it says that we have not yet looked into our hearts and realized that saying “stop” was wrong then and it’s wrong now.
Statutes are not about teaching history. History is for books and libraries and (on rare occasions) the History channel. Statutes are about whom we honor and the stories we tell about ourselves. The Stonewall Jackson statue tells the story that we want to stop the progress our country has made toward liberty and justice for all.
That’s no longer a story we want to tell. It’s time for that statue to go.