The Shenandoah County School Board’s Terrible History Lesson

An empty pedestal remains after the statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was removed from Charlottesville, Va. on July 10, 2021. Credit - Ryan M. Kelly— AFP/ Getty Images

On May 10, 2024, 161 years to the day after General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s last breath fighting for the Confederate insurrection intended to continue enslavement of human beings in America, the Shenandoah County School Board voted 5-1 to restore his name on a high school in rural Virginia.

More than 50 concerned community members, students, and parents, including one of the first African Americans to integrate Stonewall Jackson High School in 1963, and hundreds of their supporters, continued to advocate a new reckoning of the county’s heritage of enslavement, segregation, and racial injustice. They affirmed the names a community committee selected in 2021 renaming the school as Mountain View High and another school named after Confederate generals Turner Ashby and Robert E. Lee as Honey Run Elementary.

But the school board heard none of it. Instead, the board sided with those idolizing the faith and loyalty of “heroes” like Jackson, condemning pandemic-related processes that did not take into account the voices of “we the people,” and complaining about “woke outsiders.” At the end of the board meeting, the board had delivered a disgraceful new chapter in our community’s history and a terrible lesson for the children they are sworn to educate.

Historians will debate the consequences of the board’s vote and perhaps whether the nation’s current political mood has rekindled racial tensions. But the school board members and their embittered supporters made it clear that the shadows of our segregated past still loom large.

For context, we should look at 2020, particularly the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of video that emblazoned the truth of racial injustice in America. After George Floyd’s murder by police in May of that year, national, state, and local leaders across the nation took up resolutions against racism, including Shenandoah County’s Board of Supervisors and the county School Board.

At around the same time in our mountain-cradled county, another incident reminded us of America’s lingering racial unrest: an encounter between a white mob and a black pastor in Edinburg, Va. On June 1, 2020, Pastor McCray approached a couple illegally dumping a refrigerator on his property, asking them to leave. They left, returned with three more people and began “attacking him physically, saying ‘they don’t give a darn’ about ‘my black life and the Black Lives Matter stuff,’ and telling him they would ‘kill’ him,” according to Associated Press reports. McCray put distance between himself and the mob by brandishing a gun that he was legally licensed to carry. When the police arrived, they arrested the Black man with the gun.

The Shenandoah County Sheriff later apologized for the incident, but it reinforces the need for formal resolutions against racism and leaders willing to make difficult decisions for a more inclusive community. The Shenandoah County School Board at the time agreed. They chose action, encouraged by then-Department of Education secretary Atif Qarni and then-Governor Ralph Northam, both of whom supported statewide removal of Confederate leaders’ names of public schools.

The 2020 school board, tying in as the next step to its June “Resolution condemning racism and affirming the division’s commitment to an inclusive school environment for all,” retired the names of Confederate leaders, and developed a process for community and student input into choosing more unifying public school names. On September 10, 2020, the then school board reaffirmed the foregoing motion, as well as moving forward with renaming the schools on southern campus. Community committees met during the next three months, with new names chosen at the January 14, 2021 meeting, after seven months of public input.

By 2024, recently elected school board members focused their arguments for restoration on the former board’s “secret” process during the COVID “plan-demic,” stating that community input was not taken into account at the time. Two years before, three current school board members ran on a campaign to restore the school’s Confederate leader names, an attempt that ended at the June 9, 2022 school board meeting with a 3-3 stalemate. The current board consists of three more new school board members, elected in the fall of 2023. Like many school boards around the nation, ours has committed to reversing civil rights often under the lost-cause banner of Confederate pride.

The memory of Stonewall Jackson High School as a whites-only public institution until its integration in 1963 is not a distant echo of history but an agonizing experience for many Black residents of Shenandoah County. These individuals are not just statistics in history books; they are our neighbors, friends, and family—and they were intentionally harmed in Shenandoah County as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum in the 1950s.

Read More: Confederate Monuments and Other Disputed Memorials Have Come Down in Cities Across America. What Should Take Their Place?

And now again in 2024. Dozens of citizens, alum, parents, and current students of the schools addressed the board, offering poignant testimony about lived experiences with institutionalized discrimination or in support of others who had. Approximately two-thirds of the speakers opposed back-naming the schools. For them, returning to Confederate leader names makes the damage linger.

Aliyah Ogle, a student who represented her school in three sports this year and would be attending the renamed high school next year, said it best: “I'm a black student and if the name is restored, I would have to represent a man that fought for my ancestors to be slaves. That makes me feel like I'm disrespecting my ancestors and going against what my family and I believe, which is that we should all be treated equally, and that slavery was a cruel and awful thing.”

Most of the board members could not have cared less about the county’s 252 year history. They were more concerned for judging the 2020 school board’s actions and recognizing the Confederate heritage of the county. Their brand of leadership consisted of telling the people they represent that we all have problems of one kind or another; it’s time to move on. “War is hell,” said Dennis Barlow, chairman of the Shenandoah County School Board. They were joined by two dozen pro-Confederacy speakers, claiming there is no evident racism in Shenandoah County, and never has been.

Board member Tom Streett used his decision to discuss pro-slavery General Jackson. “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,” Streett said.

Streett, however, neglected to mention that even Jackson’s descendants have weighed in on this legacy issue. For the past seven years, the general’s great-great grandsons, William Jackson Christian and Warren Edmund Christian, have said they support removing Confederate statues and other monuments—including in Shenandoah County this week—as “part of a larger project of actively mending the racial disparities that hundreds of years of white supremacy have wrought.” They added that they were “ashamed to benefit from white supremacy while our black family and friends suffer.”

Yet Shenandoah County’s school board and its grievance agenda does nothing to provide historical context, advance dialogue, or heal the feelings of well-meaning citizens. Using the same policy the 2021 school board used to name Mountain View and Honey Run, the 2024 board defiantly focused on undoing the decision and giving voice to the people they wanted to hear. The decision unfairly places our children as pawns on a rhetorical battlefield, keeping the board’s focus on vengeance and political control—not due process or heritage. But it’s more dangerous than just talk and hard feelings: The county remains on the radar of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks white supremacists, including ongoing activity by the Patriot Front. To address this reality, we need better, sensible leadership from our school board. But for now, we must live with a stark reminder that elections have consequences.

Looking ahead, the many good people of our county will strive to ensure that our complete history, good and bad, remains available to students and the public. We must find a way to truly honor our whole heritage without insisting that students salute pro-slavery traitors or the treatment of their ancestors as subhuman property for almost 400 years.

If the U.S. Department of Defense can rename military bases once emblazoned with Confederate leaders’ names, then our public schools can do the same. After all, these are the spaces where the first lessons of civic duties are learned. History is complicated, no doubt, but there’s no better place to examine complex issues than in a good school. Other nations and communities reckon with difficult pasts. In Germany, for example, students still learn about Adolf Hitler, but they are not forced to wear sports jerseys and school-pride t-shirts that glorify symbols or names associated with murderous war crimes.

Our fight for what’s right in Shenandoah County is not over. We will continue to oppose historical injustices and help all constituencies in our community learn from the lessons of our past. As it has throughout our nation’s history, the work of decent people striving for a better, more united America will go on. We hope the school board here can find a way to join us along the way.

Contact us at