In teacher preparation, we are introduced to the concepts of implicit bias and we are encouraged to confront it in ourselves, our students and our colleagues.
Part of the phenomena is environmental, and the school name is a major part of that where, especially in the South, distortions of heritage seem to be conflated with the names of public schools.
In 2011, I wrote about facing this dilemma going to work at Stonewall Jackson Middle School, in the heart of the Black community on the West Side of Charleston. I would always glance throughout the halls for artifacts of the namesake, Stonewall Jackson, or his claim to fame, and saw nothing that would explain to the community who he was or why the school is named after him.
Although that was a conspicuous absence, it was an ironic relief to me. Even without that, as a descendant of slaves, I couldn’t tamp down my mixed feelings. I was excited to work within the Black community, but my heart sank a little and my stomach churned when I walked under his name through the door to teach the brilliant minds there, or went to a sporting event and heard the announcement that “Stonewall Jackson wins again” as a beautiful Black child dunked, tackled or crossed the finish line, or passed its curbside marquee, which emphasized “Respect and Responsibility.”
As a critically thinking Black teacher, the question became “respect for whom and responsibility for what?” From that perspective, I wondered why what I had learned about the Civil War and its competing armies could not reconcile valorizing the Confederates in general, much less forcing Black students and Black teachers to sanctify the names of Confederate heroes with their talents in America’s public schools.
After writing that article in 2011, I started a petition which I took around the county, getting sympathy and snickers. In 2015, I created another one online, after the Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre, going toe-to-toe with the school board — which corrected me about the general’s desire that his slaves read at Sunday school — as though his slavery stance was a minor character flaw.
Finally, amidst death threats and lukewarm support from the community, I retreated into research, where I conducted a study as a Marshall University doctoral candidate that focused on the voices of Black educators on the West Side of Charleston and nationally.
The study supports our current national and local outcry about systemic racism. It illustrated the tension Black educators across the country grapple with when confronting vestiges of white supremacy disguised as nostalgia in the form of about 200 Confederate namesake schools in the U.S. For those educators, and the public they serve, schools named to memorialize Confederates are inextricably tied to both historical and revived white supremacy movements across the globe, which anchor racist ideals into the daily environment and consciousness of communities they serve.
Especially across the South, the naming of schools was part of a campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to control the Civil War narrative as the “lost cause,” marginalize Black history and resist the civil rights movement. Although Black educators in the study are gracious enough to understand the four years of trauma endured by white culture during the Civil War, the “Heritage not hate” movement fails to recognize what Southern norms and laws unleashed on Blacks for four centuries.
The Black educators in the study saw Confederate names symbolically as a trifecta for white supremacy that amplifies racial inequities in society, the academic achievement gap for Black and Latino populations and the obliviousness of white privilege in educational systems, which allow racist ideals to usurp coveted symbolic capital from them and Black communities.
Symbolic capital recognizes how place names bring distinction and status to landscapes and people associated with them, but it can simultaneously function as symbolic violence for stakeholders who remember the past differently, as is the case with Confederate namesakes for those in the Black community.
The study revealed that Black educators were disturbed by schools named for Confederates.
Rectifying the naming problem brought up the effects on the psyche of Black students who already grapple with issues of trust in American institutions. Confederate names have the effect of confirming to Black students that Black minds or lives will never matter.
One teacher in the study recalled that, “When my cousin and I went to schools named after Confederates in the ’80s, we would have kicked butt if we heard them say [the n word], but didn’t know what the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ flag stood for or who our school was named for.”
Hundreds of thousands of students attend these schools — tens of thousands are African American, so while we are reawakened through a national anti-racism consciousness about the effects of ignoring systemic racism in our public agencies, it is time we changed the names of schools that honor white supremacy.
While some local school boards have made unilateral decisions about changing names, others have left it to local public opinion through town halls and petitions. Many others see it as a federal issue that goes beyond local sentiments, which are sometimes mired in “nostalgia.”
Organizations, such as Mothers of Diversity America, which I founded, view this not only as discrimination in the workplace — which is a violation of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission law — but also, and more seriously for our youth, as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, which supported the Brown v. Board Of Education decision of 1954.
We believe it fulfills the two-prong criteria of the courts if we all acknowledge both the racist intent of the Confederacy and the disturbing effects on Blacks of working or attending America’s public schools honoring them in name. It violates our civil rights, and the time is now to rid our educational system of it.
We have a responsibility as educators and leaders to give our students the most respectful environment possible. A war was already fought and settled to ensure that, wasn’t it?