The Kanawha County Board of Education is scheduled today to take up the question of whether to rename Stonewall Jackson Middle School.
David Knox, School Improvement Council President at Stonewall and Capital High School, is among those who has been pushing for a name change for some time. He has presented the board with a petition signed by 150 families of current and future students and letters from the school’s faculty senate.
“The petition drive is the culmination of the years of work of hundreds of people who have been diligently striving to make this change happen,” he said.
The effort has gained momentum since the death of George Floyd, which has re-ignited the debate nationwide over whether leaders of the confederacy should be venerated with statues or by having their names attached to public property.
In this instance, it is curious why Jackson’s name was attached to the school in the first place. It opened in 1940, 75 years after the end of the Civil War. Jackson was a native of the state—Clarksburg, Virginia at the time of his birth in 1824—but beyond that, what would be the reason for naming a school after him in Kanawha County?
Yes, Jackson was a distinguished soldier and a brilliant strategist. He fought for the confederacy, and that is understandable since he was loyal to his secessionist home state. However, had Jackson’s side won, the institution of slavery would have been protected and continued.
Stonewall Jackson Middle School’s student population is 42 percent black. Some are probably descendants from slaves. For them, attending a school named for a confederate general is, at the least, an odd juxtaposition. At worst, it is an insult to those students and their families.
Those pushing for change have suggested alternative names, such as Katherine Johnson or Booker T. Washington.
Johnson is the West Virginia native and brilliant mathematician whose work was instrumental in the early days of the NASA program. She was also a graduate of nearby West Virginia State University.
Washington grew up in the Kanawha Valley, overcoming poverty and discrimination to become a national figure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is sometimes described as “the unofficial spokesman for the African-American people” at that time.
It is hard to imagine that if Kanawha County school officials were deciding to name a new school building today that the name Stonewall Jackson would be on anyone’s short list.
Removing Stonewall Jackson from the building would not be a repudiation of the man, nor does it erase him from the history books. Rather it is a recalibration of the people this state should venerate by assigning their names to a public institution.