As communities across the country examine how they memorialize Confederate leaders in the wake of a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Prince William County School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers is launching a push to rename a pair of schools named for Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.
Sawyers announced the proposal Aug. 16, just a few days after a woman was killed when a man drove into a group of counter protesters at the Charlottesville rally. The school board chairman — who is also running for Congress as a Democrat — said the past weekend’s events inspired him to launch a new effort to change the names of Stonewall Jackson High School and Stonewall Middle School, both located in Manassas.
“Stonewall Jackson will certainly be honored in history, but he shouldn’t be celebrated with school names,” Sawyers said in an interview. “These aren’t people that should be looked up to with public money...This man actively fought to enslave people and prevent them from having an education and to sell off their children and their offspring. We shouldn’t have schools named after him. We just shouldn’t. It’s time to make those changes.”
Thomas Jonathan Jackson, one of the most famous generals to fight for the Confederacy, earned his nickname while fighting in Manassas, a detail that is not lost on Sawyers. But he believes there are plenty of “real American heroes here to name these schools after,” and he plans to start the process in earnest when the school board reconvenes next month.
“I’m not the one who gave Stonewall Jackson his nickname,” Sawyers said. “It just so happens that he got it right here in Prince William County and it’s time to bring it to an end.”
Sawyers acknowledges that changing the schools’ names won’t come without some additional expense. He’s estimating that it’ll cost about $250,000 to pay for the necessary signage and decorations at Stonewall Middle and another $500,000 to do so at Stonewall High.
But he’s created a GoFundMe page to raise private donations to help fund the effort and “make it as much of a no-brainer as we can.”
“I understand that, as a school board, If we spend a penny on something that someone disagrees with, they’ll say it could've gone to students, and I understand that,” Sawyers said. “But a kid who goes to Stonewall Middle and Stonewall Jackson High spends more than half their career under his name, and that’s an educational experience I think we can prevent from happening.”
Sawyers is plenty familiar with community pushback surrounding a school name change with racial overtones — the board voted to rename Godwin Middle School last year as part of a complex compromise, choosing to honor African-American activist George Hampton over former Virginia Gov. Mills Godwin, who resisted school integration during the civil rights era.
But while that change was sudden, proposed as a late compromise by Justin Wilk of the Potomac District, Sawyers expects to fully engage the community this time around.
“Ideally, we would’ve gone to the community first last time,” Sawyers said. “I want to talk to our community leaders to see what they think the possibilities are.”
Sawyers seems sure to attract pushback from at least one corner of the county — his counterpart on the Board of County Supervisors, Chairman-at-Large Corey Stewart, built the bulk of his campaign for the Republican nomination in the Virginia governor’s race around protecting Confederate monuments in Charlottesville.
Stewart didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on Sawyers’ proposal, but in recent days, he’s condemned other efforts to remove Confederate statues nationwide.
“We must protect history or the Founding Fathers are next,” he tweeted Aug. 15. “The left's goal is to discredit the Founders/founding documents.”
Stewart also hesitated to condemn the white supremacists at the Charlottesville rally, choosing to instead predict in a statement that “pundits and academics in media will use the events in Charlottesville as yet another excuse to silence and punish the speech of those with whom they disagree.”
Yet Sawyers sees his proposal not as an erasure of history or censuring of speech, but merely an attempt to make all students in the Manassas schools feel more welcome.
“We certainly will teach the history of the Civil War, and we’ll teach the history of why states seceded for their rights to own other human beings,” Sawyers said. “But to me, there’s no historical reason to celebrate Stonewall Jackson and what he fought for.”