VIRGINIA: School Named After Confederate General Renamed

The Roanoke School Board renamed Stonewall Jackson Middle School after former railroad executive John P. Fishwick on Monday, abruptly ending a monthslong debate about whether a racially diverse school in southeast Roanoke should still be named for a Confederate general.

The board deliberated for about an hour inside the William Fleming High School auditorium before voting 6-1 to rename the school. The subsequent vote for John P. Fishwick Middle School was 5-2, amid concerns the board was acting too quickly on the new name, which will take effect with the new school year.

Stonewall Jackson Middle School will now be called John P. Fishwick Middle School after the former Norfolk & Western Railway president. / The Roanoke Times

Bill Hopkins cast the lone dissenting vote on removing Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s name, citing the general opinion of the southeast Roanoke community and costs associated with renaming.

The decision comes after the Roanoke City Public Schools’ Building Name Designation Review Committee called in June for renaming the school.

The school board formed the committee in mid-November amid a national discussion on the handling of memorials and homages to Confederate leaders, and following a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Committee members said they based their opinions largely on the arguments they deemed most compelling in community responses garnered through a Google survey and three public forums held early this year.

School board Chairwoman Annette Lewis cited the year the Roanoke School Board first settled on the name for the middle school. “I thought, today, I have a choice. Today is my 1924,” she said.

Hopkins argued there did not appear to be a groundswell in favor of renaming, and those closely connected to the school were strongly opposed.

More than 90 percent of the 190 respondents to the survey who said they attended Stonewall Jackson Middle said they were against changing the name. Citywide, survey opinion on changing the name was a near 50-50 percent split. The survey, however, was not based on a randomly selected sample of public opinion. Instead, participants chose to take the survey and could take it more than once.

Hopkins also pointed to the cost as reason to keep the name.

Renaming the school could cost at least $170,000, said Superintendent Rita Bishop. The school’s basketball court, athletic and band uniforms and signs must be replaced. The school division can allocate money from its fund balance or accept donations to pay for the transition.

As for the school’s namesake, Hopkins argued Jackson is worthy of the honor. “He was not a politician. He did not make policy. He was a soldier, and he was one of this state’s greatest soldiers and one of this country’s greatest soldiers,” Hopkins said. “He was a Virginian, and Virginia voted to secede. He did what he was asked to do as a citizen of this commonwealth.”

Board member Laura Rottenborn said she agreed that Jackson was a “brilliant military strategist,” who was also charitable. But naming a school after someone deserves deeper consideration of the impact on students, she said.

The middle school is racially and ethnically diverse, with 45 percent of the student population being African American or Hispanic, and 48 percent white based on 2017-18 school year data.

“In essence, we are telling the students that go to that school that we want to give you an education that allows you to turn out like that person; that that’s somebody they should look up to,” said Rottenborn.

Rottenborn said she would not want her son to grow up to be like someone who fought to uphold slavery. She had to weigh that belief against compelling arguments, she said. She was also appalled by some opponents who, she said, turned the battle cry for Jackson on its head during the committee’s public forums, and masqueraded racist views behind support for the Confederate general.

Board member Lutheria Smith said she empathized with those pained by the name of a school they attended being changed, as her own college alma mater was renamed. But in the case of Stonewall Jackson Middle, she said it’s her job to the make the best decision for the school division and community.

Board member Dick Willis said it’s crucial to contextualize when the decision to name the middle school was made. “At that time in our country, we were trying very hard to further disenfranchise black people,” he said. “I cannot stand for that. We already know if we were going to do it today, we wouldn’t pick that name.”

The now-renamed middle school opened during the Jim Crow era in 1925 under the name Jackson Junior High School, according to newspaper coverage at the time. Shortly after the school opened, the school board recommended changing the name of the adjacent park from Belmont to Jackson Park.

Now that the school system has made its decision, Roanoke City Manager Bob Cowell said he expects to have a discussion with the city council in the coming weeks about whether to change the name of the city’s Jackson Park and Jackson Park Library, just across the street from the school. He said the discussion wouldn’t include Lee Plaza, named after Robert E. Lee.

The school board did not ask the name committee to recommend a new name for the school. Respondents to the committee’s survey or public forums were not asked to provide new name suggestions. Some, however, did float new names for the school within survey comments.

Those names included civil rights activists like Oliver Hill, who grew up in Roanoke, former Supreme Court justices, and other figures with local ties like Arthur Owens, a former Roanoke city manager. The committee packaged those suggested names and others made in three Roanoke Times editorials into its final report. Fishwick’s was the first name included in the Dec. 26 editorial.

Hopkins made the motion the school be renamed John P. Fishwick Middle School. Fishwick was born in 1916 in southeast Roanoke to English immigrant parents. He attened the school and grew up to lead the railroad then based in Roanoke.

Fellow board members said they had some concern about the pace of the decision, but realized the need to move quickly with the first day of classes only five weeks away.

Board members Eli Jamison and Willis said they supported using Fishwick’s name for the school but had trepidation about renaming it without time for more public input. Both voted no in the 5-2 decision.