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A Virginia county board votes to restore Confederates’ names to schools

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Mountain View High School will soon be known by its former name: Stonewall Jackson High School. The Shenandoah County School Board voted 5-1 to once again honor the Confederate general, whose name was originally attached to the school during the battle over racial segregation.

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The Shenandoah County School Board in Virginia will restore the names of Confederate generals Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Turner Ashby to two local schools. The controversial reversal comes nearly four years after the names were changed.

Mountain View High School will revert to its former name, Stonewall Jackson High School, and Honey Run Elementary School will go back to being Ashby-Lee Elementary School.

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The board approved the change by a 5-1 vote, with supporters saying the Confederate figures’ names had been taken off the schools in 2020 in a “knee-jerk” reaction amid protests of George Floyd’s murder by police. But opponents — including some current students — warned the board that the Confederate names would brand the schools and their county as a haven for backward, racist thinking.

Debate over changing the name began last month. As member station WMRA reports, it was the second attempt to restore the names, after a failed try in 2022.

At the contentious and lengthy meeting saw, advocates from both sides drew raucous cheers and ovations from their supporters. The public session started around 7 p.m. ET Thursday and stretched into the early hours of Friday.

Here’s what the students said

A handful of students attended the meeting, including several who said the current names represent inclusion and progress and should be kept.

“School board minutes from 1959 reveal that the decision to name our school after Stonewall Jackson was a product of massive resistance,” said student Pria Dua, referring to an era when Virginia’s leaders were aggressively fighting attempts to racially integrate the state’s schools.

Like some of the other students who spoke, Dua attends classes at Mountain View High School as part of her curriculum at the Massanutten Regional Governor’s School (a program that draws students from several school systems).

“I acknowledge that the community has been left divided and unhappy over the initial name change,” Dua said. But, she asked the board, “By taking this step backward in 2024, what foot are we putting forward? What legacy are you leaving behind for my generation to inherit?”

Another student, Eden Shelhamer, criticized the board for investing time and energy into what she called a “clearly divisive argument” at the expense of important issues, while also seeming to refuse to consider students’ opinions.

“The fact that this discussion is receiving a disproportionately vast amount of attention from the county deeply disappoints me,” she said, “and leads me to wonder whether we are operating in the interests of our students or the preservation of our parents’ pride.”

Aliyah Ogle, a Black eighth grader and athlete who plays three sports for Mountain View High School, spoke about the possibility of having to compete under Stonewall Jackson’s name.

“I would have to represent a man that fought for my ancestors to be slaves,” she said, adding that she would feel as if she’s being disrespectful both to her ancestors and her family’s values.

“It is your job to make our schools a place where all students are valued and respected,” Ogle said. She later added, “If this board decides to restore the names, I would not feel like I was valued and respected and you would not be doing your job.”

Other students spoke in favor of changing the schools’ names.

“My last name goes back six generations of conservative farmers in this county,” senior Trey Heishman said, adding that his family — and he himself — have paid their taxes.

Heishman said he is poised to graduate from Mountain View — but, he added, “I’m hoping that my fellow friends who are juniors at the school can see that the name has been changed and that they can graduate under SJHS.”

Carter Heishman, an eighth grader who is an athlete and a member of Future Farmers of America, also asked the board to restore the Stonewall Jackson name.

“I would like to wear a name that I’m proud of,” he said. “Not only do I want to have my FFA jacket say Stonewall as I enter high school, but I would also love to have my jerseys — which I wear all year round — say Stonewall.”

Invoking a long and complicated history

Residents speaking in favor of reverting to the Confederate names included Stuart Didawick, who noted that his family’s roots run deep in the community, where his ancestors received land grants in the decades before the American Revolution.

“When you vote on the name restorations, will you listen to the opinions of woke outsiders who have for the most part no ties to the land, the history, or the culture of this county?” Didawick asked the board members. “Or will you listen to the voices of the people who elected you to represent them, the people whose families built and have sustained this county for generations?”

“We are the majority,” Didawick said, “that’s the way government works.”

He added, “This board has a moral and ethical obligation to the citizens you represent to undo the dirtiest, most underhanded political stunt in the history of Shenandoah County politics.”

But another citizen who spoke up was Stephanie Bullock Smith, a Black woman who graduated from Stonewall Jackson High School in 1983. It’s time to move on, she told the board.

“Please do not go back in history,” she said. “We don’t need that. Our children don’t need that either.”

The board speaks

Several board members who supported reverting the names back to their Confederate eponyms said that in the debate over the legacy of slavery and racism, critics have seemingly ignored school buildings that still bear the names of historic figures who owned enslaved people — including the namesake of Peter Muhlenberg Middle School, where Thursday’s meeting convened.

“So I think all of this was politically driven,” board member Michael Rickard said.

Board members said they’ve received hundreds of emails from constituents about the names. Rickard held up a stack of what he said were around 260 emails.

“I had 118 of you vote to keep the names the way they are,” he said. “But I had 144 of you ask to restore the names.”

Kyle Gutshall, the board’s vice chairman who also attends James Madison University, was the only member to vote against restoring the Confederate names.

The naming question, he said, is “clearly a very difficult and divisive matter that we’ve been on now for 2 to 4 years.”

“Things like this really come down to perspective and, and how you view things,” he said.

“Two years ago when I voted to change the name back, the outcome and the feedback that I received was quite different,” Gutshall said. But, he added, as time has gone on, it seems some of his constituents no longer care as strongly about the issue.

“Ultimately, for me, it’s a very tough decision,” he said, describing efforts to get public feedback. While he has his own beliefs on the matter, Gutshall said that his district “has been overwhelmingly in support of retaining the names the way they are.”

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