After taking the historic step of removing Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s name from a middle school (formerly a high school), the Kanawha County Board of Education settled on a safe choice in picking a new name.
West Side Middle School, the new name selected in a 3-2 vote by the school board Thursday, is certainly geographically accurate as it pertains to Charleston’s municipal layout. At first glance, it’s less than inspiring, given the community movement that resulted in Jackson’s name being removed.
Stonewall Jackson High School opened in 1940 to whites only. These days, though, Black people make up 42% of the student body, the highest of any public middle school in West Virginia. It’s understandable why the community would want to remove the name of a Confederate general, native to what would become West Virginia, who fought against the United States in an effort to preserve slavery.
The school board had a chance to make a complete turnabout, with several prominent Black West Virginians — African American education pioneer Booker T. Washington; NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson; Carter G. Woodson, known as the father of black history; Charleston firefighter and activist Paul Gilmer Sr.; and civil rights activist Leon Sullivan — to choose from.
Going with a geographical name is a missed opportunity to tell the Black community that their culture and their contributions are valued, while offering something in which young Black students could take pride.
However, the board and community should still be commended for removing Jackson’s name — something proposed more than once over the course of the school’s history that finally got the traction it merited.
Also worth noting, the name “West Side Middle School” received the most votes in an online survey — although that survey was only open for less than a week. Katherine Johnson finished second. Even some of those who pushed for removing Jackson’s name told the school board, in a moment of big-time grace, they preferred the West Side moniker, as it doesn’t exclude or exalt any race.
In a way, the name West Side does pay homage to the Black community in Charleston. As one reporter cracked on Twitter, “At least they didn’t rename it Elk City Middle School” — a not-so-inside joke about attempts to gentrify and rebrand parts of Charleston’s West Side.
The new name is a safe choice, but seems to be one most can get on board with. In times like these, that’s more than anyone can typically ask for or expect.