Divide over middle school named after Confederate commander

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CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) A petition with hundreds of signatures is circulating around the City of Charleston to change the name of a middle school on the West Side.

A second petition has also been created. The petition also has hundreds of signatures to keep the name.

Stonewall Jackson Middle School was named after confederate general Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson.

“Growing up here, I always felt that it was weird that was the name of a school,” says Taylor Raab. “Especially given the demographics on the West Side. Now, I’m a father of three, and in times like this, I’m just trying to see what I can do to make things better.”

So, he created a petition.

In less than 24 hours, the petition hit its goal of 15,000 signatures.

The petition reads:

In the late 1930s, Charleston High School became over-crowded so Stonewall Jackson High School was built in 1940 to accommodate the students on the West Side of Charleston.  Stonewall Jackson High School became Stonewall Jackson Junior High School in 1989. A decade later, in 1999, Stonewall Jackson Junior High School became Stonewall Jackson Middle School, which it remains today.

The student population of SJMS is 44% black and 7% biracial.  72% are classified as low income.   Their test scores at the school fall far below the state averages: math is at 17% and science is 18%.

Now, more than ever, students need the inspiration to be great.  There is no better time than now to rename the school after the great African American and West Virginia native, Katherine Johnson.  Katherine Johnson (August 26, 1918 – February 24, 2020) was a mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights.  During her 35-year career at NASA and its predecessor, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks. The space agency noted her “historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist. 

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, she was presented the Silver Snoopy Award by NASA astronaut Leland D. Melvin and a NASA Group Achievement Award. She was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson as a lead character in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. In 2019, Johnson was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

We need to both honor Katherine Johnson and end the glorification of Stonewall Jackson.  The students of Charleston WV’s West Side deserve better.

“There is also a counter petition going around to keep the name,” says Ernest Blevins, a historian who signed a petition to keep the ‘Stonewall’ name.

That petition now already has more than 600 signatures.

This petition reads:

There is a movement on to change the name of Stonewall Jackson Middle School to Katherine Johnson Middle School, with the reasons being given to end the glorification of Stonewall Jackson.  Please join our petition to put a stop to this movement.  While Ms. Johnson was an admirable woman in her own right, she has been honored in many ways in many places, and to say the SJ had been glorified is simply not true.  The name of this school has been in place since it was built in 1940 and should remain the same.  Please sign and share this petition with all our Stonewall Jackson High School graduates!

“There’s no reason to change it for political reasons,” Blevins said.

Ernest Blevins is a historian here in the Capitol City. He says he believes in preservation. He argues we should never change the names of monuments or buildings named for historical figures or events whether good or bad.

“We wouldn’t want to go around removing, say, George Washington,” he said. “Which the same attributes argued for Stonewall Jackson could apply to where my daughters go to school.”

It’s a choice of preserving history or making history.

“These are crazy times,” Raab said. “We were in quarantine, now there’s a civil rights movement. This is just a time to listen, to learn, and to love.”

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