Schools in One Virginia County to Reinstate Confederate Names


After a meeting that lasted for hours, the Shenandoah County school board voted early Friday morning to restore the names of three Confederate officers to schools in the district.

With the vote, the district appears to be the first in the country to return Confederate names to schools that had removed them after the summer of 2020, according to researchers at the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative.

The vote rolled back a decision made four years ago, when the killing of George Floyd prompted nationwide demands for a racial reckoning. At a virtual meeting in July 2020, the summer of pandemic and protests, the board voted 5-1 to drop the names of two schools — Ashby-Lee Elementary and Stonewall Jackson High — that it deemed incompatible with a recently passed resolution condemning racism. The schools were renamed the next year as Honey Run and Mountain View.

But a fury had been unleashed in the rural county in the mountains of Virginia. People crowded into school board meetings, denouncing the name changes as secretive and rushed through with little advance notice, and voicing deeper resentments about cultural shifts they saw as being foisted upon them.

After a revote ended in a tie in 2022, the name changes stood. But opponents swore that Stonewall Jackson would be revived. And on Friday, he was.

“When you read about this man — who he was, what he stood for, his character, his loyalty, his leadership, how Godly a man he was — those standards that he had were much higher than any leadership of the school system in 2020,” said Tom Streett, one the board members. Then he and four of his five colleagues voted to bring Jackson and the other names back.

The county, which is more than 90 percent white, is not alone in rolling back decisions made in 2020. Across the U.S., a host of measures adopted in 2020 and 2021, including new classroom curriculums about the nation’s racial history, have been curtailed or eliminated in the years since. Politicians have railed against “critical race theory” and schools have reinstated mascots that had been condemned as racially offensive. But until Friday, it appears that none had brought back Confederate namesakes.

The school board’s vote did not come as a shock. Many of the signs that had been taken down from Stonewall Jackson High were kept in storage rather than discarded, as if awaiting return. The three board members who voted in 2022 to keep the new names all decided against running for re-election the next year.

“We were burnt out,” said Marty Helsley, a 73-year-old farmer who served one term.

When the issue first came up in 2020, Mr. Helsley was the sole vote against dropping the Confederate names, and urged the board to take more time with the decision. But in 2022, he said, he believed the district should just move on.

“They cannot let it go,” Mr. Helsley said before the vote on Friday. “It’s been four years! The Civil War only lasted four years!”

Three conservatives won the open seats on the board in 2023, pledging among other things to get the “woke Leftist agenda” out of schools. They did not campaign specifically about the school names, though many residents could guess where they stood.

In April, a group calling itself the Coalition for Better Schools submitted a letter about the naming issue to the school board. The group said it had conducted a survey in the areas of the county that the two schools served and found “overwhelming support for the restoration” of the names. There were questions about the reliability of these results: fewer than one in seven recipients returned a completed survey — but even so, the board agreed to take up the matter.

On Thursday night, scores of residents gathered in a middle school cafeteria for a board meeting that stretched past midnight, including four hours of public comment.

Among the dozens of people who spoke against restoring the old names were white county residents who said they were descended from Confederate soldiers and Black residents who were among the first to integrate the local schools. Several speakers emphasized that Stonewall Jackson High had been named in 1959, during Virginia’s “massive resistance” to integration. Others emphasized the irony of beginning the meeting with a Pledge of Allegiance to a flag that Jackson waged war against.

“I think it is unfair to me that restoring the name is up for discussion,” said Aliyah Ogle, 14, whose mother was one of two Black people in her class at what was then Stonewall Jackson High and who, at least until Friday’s vote, was planning to attend the school herself next year. Jackson died fighting for slavery, Aliyah said. “Had he won, I would not be allowed to attend public school and I would not be speaking here today.”

People who wanted the old names back said repeatedly that they had not seen the racism at Stonewall Jackson that people were talking about, nor had their Black classmates ever complained to them about it. The divisiveness in the community, those speakers insisted, had been introduced by the board’s vote in 2020, which they saw as underhanded and part of a “woke movement” that had “swept across the country like a dirty cancer.”

“Some people say they take offense to the school names,” said Fred Neese, 69, a poultry farmer. “I’m offended that they’re disparaging the good names of our ancestors. I’m offended that the previous board was not straightforward with the people.”

Around 11:30, the board members themselves began speaking on the issue, one by one. One decried identity politics, another read a prayer for healing.

The board’s chairman, a retired Army colonel, said that America had far less racism and civil strife than in other places around the world. Another member, a Latina and the only minority member of the board, said that people who raise claims of racism may mean well but are “misled by those who seek division to strengthen their political ideology.”

But most of the board said that after what they saw as a flawed and undemocratic decision four years ago, they wanted to do what the majority of the community seemed to want: to restore the Confederate names.

And sometime after midnight, they voted to put things back the way they were.

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