The Kanawha County Board of Education meets next week to discuss renaming Stonewall Jackson Middle School, which has a student body that is 42% African American.
The purpose of naming a school is to celebrate our heritage, the good part of history we wish our children to emulate. While we cannot measure a historic character by today’s morality, we can judge who we wish our children to emulate using current standards.
The school board has a few choices.
One is to leave the name alone. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was a brilliant military strategist whose tactics are still taught today. He served with distinction for the United States during the Mexican-American War.
Prior to joining the Confederacy, Jackson taught at the Virginia Military Institute, where he was respected by African Americans. He organized Sunday school for Blacks, and his pastor emphatically declared he was the Black man’s friend.
He also was a slaveholder. Stonewall Jackson thought a good Christian slaveholder was one who treated servants fairly and humanely. There is no evidence he didn’t. Jackson never advocated slavery, but he and his family owned six.
Historian James Robertson wrote that the first three were wedding gifts. Immoral today, but not unusual for the time. A fourth asked Jackson to purchase him so he could work off his purchase and become a free man. Jackson accommodated. A fifth asked Jackson to purchase her as she sought to leave an unpleasant situation. He taught them to read and write.
And a sixth was a 4-year-old orphan girl with learning disabilities who was given to Jackson by an aged widow, ostensibly for protection as much as service.
So, compared to contemporaries, Jackson was enlightened.
Nonetheless, he was a slaveholder and he joined the Confederacy to overthrow our government, which are reasons to change the school’s name. Or the school board could affirm his legacy. That’s the decision.
However, there are options.
Booker Taliaferro Washington, born a slave and raised in Malden, was the founding president of the Tuskegee Institute. In 1895, his Atlanta speech catapulted him to the position of unofficial spokesman for all African Americans during the Jim Crow era. After his death in 1915, others built upon his work in America’s Civil Rights Movement. He maintained ties to Malden throughout his life and spoke several times at what is now West Virginia State University
Katherine Johnson, a graduate of WVSU, was a Black mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights. During her 35-year career at NASA and its predecessor organization, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks.
Isom Cabell, born in the 1860s at the Cabell Farm in Institute to a wealthy white man and a black woman, lost an arm in his youth to a farm accident. He attended WVSU and taught in Moundsville, where he started the first Sunday school at the state prison. He later returned to Charleston’s West Side, where he served as principal of two Black grade schools before he died in 1933.
According to “Black Past,” a history of African Americans in the Kanawha Valley, Black workers at Kelly Axe in the 1930s successfully campaigned for a junior high, named Cabell Junior High, which sat where Mary C. Snow Elementary stands today.
Or what about Ruth Norman, a Black educator? After graduating from Howard and Columbia universities, she taught English for 53 years at Garnet High, Charleston’s only high school for Black students.
At Garnet, her students included Leon Sullivan, who later became an anti-apartheid activist and longtime member of General Motors’ board of directors; and television journalist Tony Brown, an academic and businessman, best known for his long running TV show, “Tony Brown’s Journal.”
I’m sure there are even more choices for the school board. Or they could just stonewall it. I hope they choose to change.