WOODSTOCK, Va. — It was getting late, well past 10 p.m., when the Shenandoah County School Board finally got around to the question that had been hanging over the county for two long and exhausting years. Should Stonewall Jackson return?
“Discussion,” Marty Helsley, the chairman of the board, announced wearily. “Who wants to go first?”
Two years ago, in a summer ringing with nationwide protests and marches, the country seemed on the verge of sweeping change. Governments from statehouses to city councils publicly resolved to address long overlooked racist legacies, as policies and monuments that seemed permanent were quickly toppled.
But change itself is volatile. A political backlash formed almost immediately and newly elected officials set to work undoing the rapid transformations of 2020. School boards throughout the country have rescinded policies that put an emphasis on addressing racism, and dozens of states have introduced measures that would restrict how race and history are taught. Glenn Youngkin, elected last year as governor of Virginia, fulfilled a campaign promise on his first day in office by ordering an end to the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts” in schools.
massive resistance” to school integration. It was desegregated several years later, though there have rarely been many more than a half-dozen Black students at a time. Over the decades, the Confederate imagery that pervaded Stonewall — the flags, the emblems, the mascot on horseback — was slowly chipped away.
urged schools to get rid of Confederate names, and in rapid succession, many did.
Things had been relatively quiet on that front in Shenandoah County until the afternoon of July 4, when an item showed up on the agenda for the school board’s upcoming meeting: “school names.” Groups immediately formed on Facebook and petitions circulated, eventually gathering about 2,000 signatures in favor of changing the names and 4,000 against. On July 9, at a virtual meeting, the board voted, 5-1, to retire the names of the elementary school, Ashby-Lee — the names of two Confederate officers — and of the high school, Stonewall Jackson.
The fury was immediate. Outraged Stonewall alumni packed school board meetings; a major donor to the school threatened to stop giving money; a member of the county’s Board of Supervisors sued to undo the decision and filed a petition to remove the board president. Family members stopped speaking. People were yelled at in the farmers’ market.
To opponents of the change, the whole thing was an affront to democracy.
“It was the sneakiness,” said Renee Hawkins, 50, a Stonewall Jackson graduate. She and others filed a barrage of public records requests, uncovering discussions leading up to the vote among board members, some of whom, Ms. Hawkins and others said, had denied their intentions just days beforehand. “For 50 years, people went to this school and never had a problem with the name.”