Roanoke’s school board Monday morning voted to remove the name of Stonewall Jackson Middle School.
The board chose to rename the school for John P. Fishwick, a Roanoke business leader and railroad president.
The move came after months of discussion and public input, much of it in favor of keeping the name. Before the vote, board members said they’d been losing sleep over the decision and some had not made up their minds even as they walked into the auditorium Monday morning.
"There’s not a right answer to this question," board member Laura Rottenborn admitted. But then she asked herself if Jackson was the man she wanted her son to grow up to be. "Ultimately, I do not want my son to grow up to be somebody who lead a movement who’s primary purpose was to further disenfranchise a group of people."
Doctor Elizabeth Jamison, who chaired the committee that recommended the change, said she realized that the school's name had meaning to many different groups. "And they all have truth in them to those people for whom it has meaning. The symbol isn’t just about today, it’s about the future," Jamison said. "And what does this name symbolize not just to the students who are there today and the community there today, but for the generations who don’t live here yet, who aren’t yet born? And for that reason I believe having a symbol that will always be a magnet of controversy for at least some segments of our population is problematic for our students, problematic for our community."
Chairperson Annette Lewis is used to making tough decisions. "This is my ninth year and this has been the most difficult one," Lewis said after the meeting.
William Hopkins was the only board member to vote to keep the Jackson name. Hopkins said there was no groundswell of opinion in favor of a change and cited the costs involved. He also said Jackson was deserving of the honor. "He was not a politician. He was a soldier and a great one. He would have fought whichever way Virginia went. And as a civilian he showed his willingness to help African American slaves learn to read and write, which actually put him in criminal legal jeopardy. That alone ought to get you something," Hokins said.
School board members said they wanted to put the issue to rest before the school year starts in August. After voting to drop the Jackson name, the board quickly approved Hopkins' motion for the name John P. Fishwick Middle School.
Fishwick grew up in the neighborhood and was CEO of the Norfolk and Western Railway before it became Norfolk Southern. "It just made sense to go ahead and name it after someone from Southeast, who graduated from the middle school, who contributed greatly. So I think there is some relief in that as well," Lewis said.
Hopkins agreed that the Fishwick name is an appropriate replacement. "It’s a name that the Southeast community can be proud of. He was one of theirs. He grew up there, went to school there. I think he would be a great role model for those students."
Workers began removing the Stonewall Jackson signs as soon as the board made its decision. By 11:15 a.m. most of the Stonewall Jackson signs were gone. The name is pressed into concrete above the school's main door, however, and will have to be covered. It also can't be sanded off the gymnasium floor but school officials expected the floor would have to be replaced in the next few years anyway.
The cost to replace signs, uniforms and the gym floor could easily top $150,000 according to school superintendent Rita Bishop.