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Shenandoah County will vote on whether to restore Confederate names

The Shenandoah County School Board will vote Thursday on whether to restore Confederate names to two schools.

What used to be Stonewall Jackson High School is now Mountain View High School.

What used to be Ashby Lee Elementary is now Honey Run Elementary.

The 2020 name changes have not gone down well with some in the province. Those who opposed the name change in the first place remain on the school board; those who favored it are now gone, and a new school board may take the unusual step of returning Confederate names to public buildings.

The debate on this has followed the expected path. A comment forum on the Strasbourg-based newspaper Northern Virginia Daily is buzzing with back and forth:

“This administration seems eager to embarrass our students and make our province a statewide, national and international target of ridicule and disbelief. Naming schools for men who killed American soldiers and incited others to kill in their quest to keep blacks enslaved is downright racist.”

“The woke mafia shouldn’t be able to turn this place into a Nova Suburb any time soon.”

“If we were to go back to the previous names, would we stick out like a sore thumb and carry the stigma that we are most likely in the minority? I don’t think a turnaround will have a positive effect on our province. It is better to leave things alone.”

“Sorry to tell the defenders of the last school board, but no one here celebrates slavery. However, we celebrate and honor our ancestors. And in this case, a hero from Virginia who put the Valley on the map.”

John Murray, also known as Lord Dunmore.  Portrait by Joshua Reynolds.  Courtesy of the Scottish National Gallery.
John Murray, also known as Lord Dunmore. Portrait by Joshua Reynolds. Courtesy of the Scottish National Gallery.

You get the idea. None of the arguments are new. In an earlier column I noted that it is ironic that Shenandoah County is the place where the wisdom of name changes is being debated when Shenandoah County itself underwent a name change: it was originally Dunmore County, named for Lord Dunmore, the last colonial governor of Virginia . When American revolutionaries chased Dunmore out to sea and never returned, his name was removed from the county.

That makes sense, but that is not the case: the town named after Dunmore’s eldest son remained unchanged. That town is Fincastle, in Botetourt County – named after the Viscount of Fincastle. Why didn’t the American patriots complete the process and strip Fincastle of its name as well? Mind you, I’m not suggesting we do that. I have a Fincastle address. I like the way the name looks and sounds. But its origins seem as reprehensible as Dunmore County – perhaps even more so. At least Dunmore was actually governor and did some good things before running afoul of the locals. His son had nothing to do with Virginia. Why do we honor him?

(Fun fact: Lord Dunmore ordered the Norfolk waterfront to be burned. He also offered enslaved workers their freedom if they sided with the British, and many took him up on that offer. The history is complicated. If you’d like to learn more about that era, check out our Cardinal 250 project on little-known stories of Virginia’s role in the Revolution and sign up for the monthly newsletter).

All of which brings me to this point: we are very inconsistent about name changes.

The people of Virginia rebelled against the crown and overthrew the monarchy – we celebrate this every Fourth of July – and yet we retained the royal names attached to 26 counties, a number now reduced to 24 because Elizabeth City County and Princess Anne County had been merged into Hampton and Virginia Beach.

Nine provinces are named after members of the House of Stuart: James City, Henrico, Charles City, Elizabeth City, York, Gloucester, Princess Anne, Fluvanna, Prince George.

Three provinces are named after members of the House of Orange: King and Queen, King William, Orange.

Fourteen provinces are named after members of the House of Hanover: Brunswick, Hanover, King George, Caroline, Prince William, Amelia, Frederick, Augusta, Louisa, Lunenburg, Cumberland, Prince Edward, Charlotte and Mecklenburg.

This list does not include cities, a legal distinction that came later, but which bear royal names – most notably Williamsburg (King William III) and even Thomas Jefferson’s own Charlottesville (Charlotte, wife of King George III).

John Russell, the Duke of Bedford, after whom Bedford County is named.  Courtesy of ABC Gallery.
John Russell, the Duke of Bedford, after whom Bedford County is named. Courtesy of ABC Gallery.

It also does not include counties named after British nobility who were not members of the royal family, such as Bedford County (named after John Russell, Duke of Bedford, who was a British minister, even though he was accused of to spend too much time on his estate, where he played cricket and shot pheasants) and Halifax County (named after George Montagu-Dunk, the Earl of Halifax, who as chairman of the Board of Trade helped establish a port city in Nova Scotia which now also includes his name). Nor does it include counties named after other British figures, such as Pittsylvania County, named after British Prime Minister William Pitt, who was considered a friend of the colonies, or Rockingham County, named after Lord Rockingham, another prime minister we liked . And then there’s my own Botetourt County, named after Lord Botetourt, the last royal governor we liked.

Why haven’t we changed them all? Two years ago, in an earlier column, I asked this question to Roger Ekirch, a university professor of history at Virginia Tech. His answer: When the Americans first rebelled, they felt that they were simply asserting their legal rights as Englishmen. They didn’t reject their British heritage, they just wanted to do their own thing. They were particularly fond of King William III and Queen Mary as enforcers of the 1689 Bill of Rights, which became a rough model for ours. Framed this way, the question for Shenandoah County is: Does the county want to endorse its Confederate heritage or reject it as wrong?

Still, that doesn’t explain my curiosity as to why Dunmore was away while Fincastle stayed in.

Portrait of Patrick Henry
Portrait of Patrick Henry. George Bagby Matthews (1857-1943), after Thomas Sully (1783-1872). Courtesy of the US Senate.

We have more modern inconsistencies: Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville was forced to change its name from that of a slaveholding champion for freedom (well, partial freedom) to Patrick and Henry Community College, named after two of the counties it serves – even though those provinces are named after the same Patrick Henry. I’m in no way advocating whether or not these names should be changed, but it seems strange that Patrick Henry’s name is considered inappropriate for a school but is considered okay for not one but two counties. If there is a difference, it involves a lot of nuance and it seems that we do not live in a nuanced era.

Likewise, Lord Fairfax Community College was renamed Laurel Ridge because Lord Fairfax was a slave owner – yet we still have our most populous county, as well as a city, named after that same slave owner.

Granted, it’s easier to change the name of a single institution than a place name for a province home to more than 1.1 million people. I remember years ago in some places there were proposals to designate streets after Martin Luther King Jr. to mention. One objection was that it would be difficult for people and businesses on that street to change their address. That seemed to me a valid, but weak objection: should we always be bound by decisions from the past? When I first moved to my current hometown, the road had no name other than the number assigned to it by the state. Our mailing address – which I have now forgotten – was something like Route 1, Box So-and-So. Then came the county’s 911 system and every road, every single road, had to be renamed, which meant everyone had to change their address on every government or business form. That was a hassle, but I also like the idea that the county fire department can find me after my microwave ignites into a miniature Chernobyl.

Over time, many things have been renamed as political sentiments changed – what is now Liberty Street in Harrisonburg used to be German Street until World War I went out of fashion.

A photo of the Danville Courthouse, with a Bloody Monday historical marker in the foreground.
A portrait of Judge Archibald Aiken, a noted segregationist who presided over cases arising from Danville’s civil rights struggle, was removed from the city’s courthouse. Photo by Brooke Stephenson.

We also have a lot of things that haven’t been named yet. Danville has a bridge named after a segregationist judge who led the Bloody Monday civil rights demonstrators of 1963. His portrait has been removed from the courthouse, but his name still appears on one of the main bridges over the Dan River.

Thomas Jefferson, who came for some name changes, had something to say about this a long time ago. Engraved on the wall of the Jefferson Memorial is the advice he gave to future generations: “I am not in favor of frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human spirit. As that becomes more developed and enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths are discovered, and manners and opinions change, so, as conditions change, institutions must also advance to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to still wear the coat that fitted him as a boy as a civilized society to remain always under the regime of their barbarian ancestors.

Or, as the great philosopher Paul Simon put it in one of his songs: ‘Every generation throws a hero onto the pop charts.’ The Shenandoah County School Board will decide Thursday who its heroes are.