In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the very ground is saturated in the bloody history of the Civil War. When I lived in central Virginia, I passed by three major Civil War battlegrounds during my daily commute to Washington. So when you hear that a local chapter of the NAACP is suing a Virginia county to rename two public schools currently named after Confederate heroes, you may assume this is a matter of very old history clashing with newer demands for justice.
But as is often the case in Virginia and throughout the South, the commemorations being challenged were not created during or immediately after the Civil War, or indeed, in the ensuing post-Reconstruction decades when white supremacy was reimposed on the region without formal slavery. As the Washington Post reports, Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Hanover County (just north of Richmond) got their monikers — along with the sports team names “the Confederates” for the former and “the Rebels” for the latter — during the last spasms of Jim Crow, when white southerners were battling desegregation.
More specifically, Lee-Davis opened in 1959, in the immediate wake of Virginia’s famous campaign of “Massive Resistance” to desegregation, which at one point threatened the very existence of public schools in the Commonwealth. Stonewall Jackson opened in 1968; the Post generously says it was named “as integration was underway.” Actually, Hanover County schools were not fully integrated until the 1969-1970 school year; soon after, the NAACP asked the county school board to rename both schools, but the petition was rejected. To get a sense of what the climate of opinion in Hanover County was in 1968, it’s helpful to know that racist presidential candidate George Wallace trounced Hubert Humphrey for second place there, with Richard Nixon — then in the first phase of his own “southern strategy” in conjunction with allies like Strom Thurmond — winning the county.
The Post notes that the NAACP renewed its petition for a name change in 2017, after the renowned explosion of racist violence over in Charlottesville, but were again rejected after students were polled (black enrollment in the two schools is under 10 percent). And so, as the plaintiffs say in their lawsuit, they are asking a federal judge to “eradicate the vestiges of a shameful, racist educational system in Hanover County.”
This is not about the Civil War or even the Confederacy, or the sacrifices soldiers and civilians made on behalf of the Lost Cause. It’s about the neo-Confederacy, the decidedly ignoble, purely racist effort to keep African-Americans as close to bondage as the power of law and economic and educational deprivations could ensure.
This is a distinction that is particularly important in Virginia, precisely because of the opportunities history presents to pretend monuments to 20th-century racism — and implicitly, to 21st-century attacks on voting rights and “political correctness — were erected many generations ago. That is why, when Republican governor Bob McDonnell proposed a Confederate History Month for Virginia back in 2010, I made an alternative suggestion:
But as a white southerner old enough to remember the final years of Jim Crow, when every month was Confederate History Month, I have a better idea for McDonnell: Let’s have a Neo-Confederate History Month that draws attention to the endless commemorations of the Lost Cause that have wrought nearly as much damage as the Confederacy itself. …
[A] Neo-Confederate History Month could remind us of the last great effusion of enthusiasm for Davis and Lee and Jackson and all the other avatars of the Confederacy: the white southern fight to maintain racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s when “Dixie” was played as often as the national anthem at most white high school football games in the South; when Confederate regalia were attached to state flags across the region; and when the vast constitutional and political edifice of pre-secession agitprop was brought back to life in the last-ditch effort to make the Second Reconstruction fail like the first.
It’s actually the NAACP that is honoring history in asking that public officials come clean about the provenance of these monuments to latter-day racism. And it’s the public officials opposing them who want to whitewash it.