Stonewall Jackson Honored in an African-American Church?: Deconstructing One Stereotype

manassas 082bThis is a window from the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, VA. On it, it depicts the last words of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson: “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the tree”–spoken on May 10, 1863. Oh, one more thing: this is an African-American congregation! The descendants of this church sat under Jackson’s Sunday School class from 1855-1861 when it was illegal in Virginia for blacks to learn how to read and write, making Jackson a lawbreaker. They were so grateful for his work with them that these congregants chose never to forget the legacy of teaching Scripture. Take a listen.

How do we reconcile this matter?  Listening to many history classes and documentaries, all Southerners were racists and all Northerners were color-blind.  Just the closest of perusals will show a more moderate and middle-ground approach is needed.  To take our 21st century sensibilities and put them on 19th century mindsets is misguided at best, but arrogant at worst.  Few blacks in the North were permitted to vote.  Most people in the North may have believed slavery was oppressive and disgusting, but few believed the African-American on equal ground with the whites. 

Jackson breaks the stereotype by teaching slaves to read and write!  Not every Southerner saw them as animals or inferior.  While this does not excuse the institution of slavery so prevalent in the South, it does shed light that there were good men on both sides, regardless of the goodness of their cause.

Richard G. Williams in his book Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend observed:

It has been said that General Jackson “fought for slavery and the Southern Confederacy with the unshaken conviction that both were to endure.” This statement is true with regard to the latter, but I am very confident that he would never have fought for the sole object of perpetuating slavery. It was for her constitutional rights that the South resisted the North, and slavery was only comprehended among those rights. He found the institution a responsible and troublesome one, and I have heard him say that he would prefer to see the negroes free, but he believed that the Bible taught that slavery was sanctioned by the Creator himself, who maketh men to differ, and instituted laws for the bond and the free. He therefore accepted slavery, as it existed in the Southern States, not as a thing desirable in itself, but as allowed by God for ends which it was not his business to determine. At the same time, the negroes had no truer friend, no greater benefactor. Those who were servants in his own house he treated with the greatest kindness, and never was more happy or more devoted to any work than that of teaching the colored children in his Sunday-school.

As deplorable as aspects of this sound (“He found the institution a responsible and troublesome one” . . . “he believed that the Bible taught slavery, etc.”), he was devoted to teach those whom no one else would teach.  And, again, I just find it interesting that an African-American congregation in the heart of the South (Virginia) would put a monument to someone that everyone else all around says hated them because he fought for the Confederacy.  Maybe all the stereotypes we have constructed need to be reevaluated.

What think ye?

Categories: Civil War | Tags: , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Stonewall Jackson Honored in an African-American Church?: Deconstructing One Stereotype

  1. jimmiedon

    I appreciated your commentary concerning Stonewall Jackson and his teaching of African American children. He had a very serious set-to with an attorney over the issue….as he was actually doing something opposed to a state law. You would be interested in knowing that I wrote a prospectus for a doctoral dissertation in Black History at Columbia U. in NYC and did my project for the D. Min. at SEBTS on Christian Love & Race Relations.

    • If I didn’t already have my DMin already and had the time, I would be very interested in Civil War and post-Civil War/Reconstruction race relations in the church in the South. Thanks for your comments and encouraging words.

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