banner ad

EDITORIAL: Prince William Should Prepare to Discuss Race in Regards to School Namings

| April 6, 2016 | 0 Comments | Education
Image of Stonewall Jackson statue as used in petition.

Image of Stonewall Jackson statue as used in the petition “friend’s of Stonewall Jackson High School: don’t change our school’s name!!!”

Some community members want to rename schools. Many do not. However, now that we’re talking about it; let’s not shy away from the conversation.

A petition to keep the name Stonewall Jackson High School in the Manassas area of Prince William County has already garnered 1,125 signatures at publication, even though there appears to be no active campaign to rename the school.

March 2, the Prince William County School Board voted to rename Mills Godwin Middle School in Woodbridge after Dr. George Hampton. The vote was a compromise, so that the new elementary school in the Coles District could be renamed for Kyle Wilson, a fallen fire fighter.

Tonight, the board will reconsider that vote.

Vic Larnerd, a SJHS alum, started an online petition to express opposition to renaming Prince William’s Stonewall Jackson High School out of concern that other PWCS could be renamed. Larnerd notes that the Prince William Branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) sent the school board a letter that contains a description of Stonewall Jackson that he argues is “historically wrong.”

The letter thanks school board members for voting to rename Godwin Middle School. It also notes  “Stonewall” Thomas Jackson as an example of a person for which it would be inappropriate for a school to be named; though it does not explicitly request that the school be renamed. 

The NAACP’s description, written by Sedalia Ledbetter, chair of the branch’s education committee, compares Jackson to infamous traitor Benedict Arnold. However, it also discusses how the endurance of Jackson’s legacy is largely due to the pervasiveness of white privilege.

The steadfastness with which some people have or will oppose renaming these memorials is the final analysis a function of white privilege and an explicit affirmation of white dominance over minorities in general and African Americans in particular. Can you imagine a school in Virginia named after Captain John Brown? What’s the difference between Stonewall Jackson and John Brown, save the latter could provide a biblically based moral imperative for his insurrection, fought and died in the interest of freedom for those less fortunate than himself rather to preserve a system of oppression from which he benefitted. There are no schools named after Benedict Arnold.

The letter also states that if a school had been named for an African American who was later found to have a tarnished legacy, such as O.J. Simpson or Bill Cosby, surely, the names would have been promptly removed.

Larnerd believes the letter’s depict’s Jackson incorrectly, because despite being a Confederate General, he argues Jackson was a friend to African Americans. He taught some African Americans to read and write, which was illegal at the time, and African American churches in Virginia still honor him with art depicting his image.

Those signing the SJHS petition, referenced Jackson’s history. Yet, for many, Jackson’s legacy, and the legacy of their alma matter are irreversibly intertwined. 

Consider this statement from Brian Widman, of Ohio:

You don’t know me, but my father is Charles R. Wildman, who was Stonewall Jackson Senior High School’s first principal. I know how the community worked tirelessly together (parents, students, politicians) with my father and his dedicated staff, teachers and administrators to create a shared school identity (read “pride”). The years was 19643, the inception of LBJ’s “Great Society” and when civil rights legislation finally became law. Ask anyone who attended Stonewall Jackson High School in those early years. They will attest to the pride and community involvement.

However, it is important to remember that a petition is not an open forum. The only people commenting share a point of view, so it is impossible to read through the petition comments and get a complete view of the issue.

It also begs the question: what do todays students and recent graduates think about possibly renaming Stonewall Jackson High School? And as the school becomes more diverse, would students prefer a name that better reflects their identity, for which they see themselves reflected and for which they could be proud? A President Obama High School or Sonia Sotomayor High School?

Some may assume that high school students are not thinking about these things. But, consider the graduation speech made by SJHS’s 2014 Class President Magdalene Kwakye. In that speech, Kwakye shared how her white, suburban teachers tried to rename her “Madeline” because it was easier for them. It better fit into their vernacular, so she was expected to change. 

Imagine how black students feel attending SJHS. Do they consider Jackson a friend or an enemy? Are they proud to have him represent them?

Let’s be clear: the Prince William County School Board is very unlikely to consider a name change for SJHS.

As Chairman Ryan Sawyers told the Board of County Supervisors last night, he reiterated to Bristow Beat today: “I have not been a part of any discussion about renaming any other schools (than Godwin) nor am I interested in taking part in such a discussion.”

As seen with Godwin, it would cause a community uproar especially if it were to be done without a naming committee. Moreover, the renaming of Godwin Middle School is estimated to cost around $500,000, according to Potomac Local, who got their numbers from PWCS. However, Chairman Ryan Sawyers said the list of what would have to be changed includes many items that could run their “life cycle,” or not be changed at all. 

Sawyers estimates the final cost to be between $100,000 and $125,000.

“And to the families that were irreparably harmed by Governor Godwin’s policies (even after the school was named after him) the value is priceless,” Sawyers told Bristow Beat.

Still, while it is tempting to call this a nonissue and dismiss the school board for having better things to focus on, the renaming issue is an opportunity to rethink how we think about things.

Perhaps, it is not best to rename schools now when the school division could better use the money to reduce class sizes, hire instructional coaches or implement new programs to help prevent bullying.

However, in 2016, in a county that is minority-majority community, we can no longer quite the voices who are calling for change. It is time we allow the new generation to speak up, and we listen.

The renaming of schools should not be the result of an 11th hour compromise; however, if people feel strongly about it, then, let’s start an honest conversation. Let’s be ready to listen.

© 2016, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

Facebook Comments
Print Friendly

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: Education

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

banner ad