If you didn’t know any better one might think that Confederate leaders were at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Case in point is the popular and misunderstood story of Stonewall Jackson’s black Sunday School which he established in Lexington, Virginia in 1855. Most of the stories that you will come across Online or in non-academic books tend to wax poetic about the benefits of these classes for the areas free and enslaved blacks. There is no shortage of stories of blacks praising Jackson or dedicating stained-glass windows long after his death and the end of the Civil War. All of this is interesting, but rarely are we given anything that approaches analysis of how the school functioned in slaveholding Virginia in the period after Nat Turner’s insurrection. Even James I. Robertson, who authored the most thorough biography of Jackson, fails to provide a sufficient analysis of the broader conditions that shaped Jackson’s Sunday School. Robertson cites the widely held assumption that “the more uninformed a slave was about everything, the more docile he tended to be”, the Virginia code that forbade the teaching of slaves to read, and Jackson’s apparent defiance. That’s about it. We are left with an image of a defiant Jackson who would not allow Virginia law to stand in his way of saving souls. This view is pervasiveness throughout much of the popular literature. Consider Rickey Pittman’s new book, Stonewall Jackson’s Black Sunday School:
In autumn 1855, slaves and free black men, women, and children first made their way to the Lexington Presbyterian Church to attend Sunday school. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, stood as the superintendent of this school. Although it was illegal under Virginia law to teach blacks to read and write, Jackson believed all men, regardless of race, should have the opportunity to receive an education. To these students, Professor Jackson was a leader and mentor who taught them more than just reading and writing. He instilled in them the word of God. Even after he left to join the Civil War, he prayed for his students and sent them money for Bibles and hymnals. Through Jackson’s leadership, many of his Sunday-school students went on to become community leaders, ministers, and educators. This lesser-known tale of the Confederate leader shows young readers another side of the man known in battle as “Stonewall.”
Earlier I referenced Nat Turner and I did so because it is crucial to understanding this story. Charles Irons does a magnificent job of analyzing the degree of cooperation between white and black evangelicals in Virginia through the early 1830s. He notes that by 1830 there one-quarter of black Virginians (115,000) had been converted to evangelical Christianity and thousands more practiced outside of the church. In addition, Turner’s claims that God had inspired him to rise up against the white population worked to reinforce growing concerns among white evangelicals as to their ability to safely monitor black gatherings. Irons is instructive here:
Gripped by fear and mistrust for several months, white Virginians struggled to adjust to the sobering fact that converted slaves could unleash such savagery. Some, particularly nonslaveholders from the western portion of the commonwealth, suggested that only a general emancipation could save the state from racial Armageddon and pushed for a constitutional convention to consider such a measure. Others, including some white evangelicals still shocked by August’s carnage, favored simply denying slaves the privilege of religious expression. Stark choices: emancipation or an end to evangelization. Within tow years, however, white evangelicals had found a way to move forward without either destroying black religion or freeing their slaves. No single ideologue emerged to articulate the new policy of constant white supervision right away; politicians and churchgoers independently stumbled toward the formula of aggressive oversight and proselytization. (p. 143)
Within this context, Jackson’s school makes perfect sense, though it should be pointed out that a school had been established in Lexington as early as 1843. While our popular perceptions paint Jackson as some kind of liberator who was ahead of the curve, Irons’s analysis provides us with a clearer understanding of how the school reinforced slavery and white supremacy in Lexington and the Shenandoah Valley. Jackson admitted as much himself when he noted that God had placed the black race in a subordinate position. Constant oversight allowed Jackson and the rest of the white population to continue to proselytize and at the same time monitor his black students’ understanding of themselves in relationship to God and the white community. One can only wonder what Jackson would have said to a student who put forward the notion that slavery stood in contradiction to God’s law.
Let me point out that the goal here is not to demonize Jackson. I have no problem with people who choose to celebrate Jackson’s work within the black community. As historians, however, our job is to understand how churches functioned in a slaveholding society and how those institutions evolved in response to various challenges. As much as we need to be sensitive to Jackson’s personal motivation we must never forget that he did not operate in a vacuum.