In The Eyes of a Higher Power

June 2024

In the 1980s, a football player visiting Shenandoah County’s Stonewall Jackson High School could be forgiven for wondering what century he’d entered when he took the field. His hosts’ cheerleaders would run up and down the sidelines waving the stars and bars. Hometown fans, some dressed in gray, would respond with the rebel yell. And why not? The Stonewall mascot was the General, and the Generals were known for hitting hard.

All of that is gone. The Confederate flag no longer appears at the football games; the one that used to hang in the gym has been removed. The rebel yell, along with the old-fashioned gray uniforms, have been relegated to reenactment day at the nearby New Market battlefield. None of these changes resulted from an edict handed down by the county school board. Instead, quietly, with little resistance, these traditions were phased out as the county changed.

Which meant there was so much reason for optimism in June of 2020 when, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the school board passed a resolution affirming a “commitment to an inclusive school environment for all.” As activists were quick to point out, this statement seemed at odds with the two public schools still named after Confederate officers. A citizen’s petition, demanding that the names be changed, received more than two thousand signatures. To put that number in perspective: Mt. Jackson, the town nearest the two schools, had fewer than two thousand residents total.

The school board listened. On July 9th, by a vote of 5 to 1, the board voted to change the names of the schools. Ashby-Lee Elementary would become Honey Run, while Stonewall Jackson High School became Mountain View. “You can’t claim to be inclusive, which we do, and have students who feel like they’re excluded,” explained board member Andrew Keller. “Which is more important? Someone’s heritage regarding a school’s name or someone’s inclusion into that school and their right to feel welcome?”

The lone dissenting board member, Marty Helsley, saw things differently. “Where’s this going to end?” he asked. “Eventually we’re going to have to take a stand against people who want to destroy what our Founding Fathers did. If not, we’re going to lose the country.”

As it turned out, many people in the county saw the change the way Mr. Helsley did — and demanded the old names be restored. Still, the school board held firm: it was time to turn the page on the Confederacy. But that was 2020. One by one those school board members left or lost at the polls. The backlash, meanwhile, growing and becoming more organized, was unwavering in its demand: bring back the old names, and do it now. The new school board proved more receptive to those agitations. It announced in 2024 that its six members would vote, after an evening of public comment in early May, on a motion to change the names back.

An alumnus of Ashby-Lee and a native of the county, I hurried home to see how my community was gearing up for yet another round in an all too familiar fight. My first stop was the home of Sarah Kohrs. A white historian, researcher, and homeschool teacher for her three boys, Ms. Kohrs had first risen to local prominence through her work restoring the Sam Moore Slave Cemetery, not far from Honey Run Elementary. More recently, she had become the public face of the resistance to the Confederate names. For a full year, she had sent a weekly open letter to the six members of the county school board. Each letter had recounted in great detail some aspect of Blacks’ fight for equality: the laws of the Confederate Congress in Richmond, Brown v. Board, specific and local miscarriages of justice.

Ms. Kohrs and I met in her kitchen. A warm and lively place, dense with decorations and unlabeled jars of herbs and preserves, the room seemed to be the center of the house. When I arrived, her youngest boy, middle-school aged, briefly came in to inspect me and discuss The Two Towers with his teacher and mother before getting back to his reading elsewhere. Ms. Kohrs tidied the counters while she spoke.

“I kept sending the letters because, even with my own mother, it took me over a year to persuade her about the names,” Ms. Kohrs said as she spooned honey into my lavender tea. “And I get it. I have Confederate ancestors. I remember believing the lost cause narrative and being told to write sonnets about Jackson in school. But now I know the school board knows the history because I told them the history. If they change the names now, there’s no saying they didn’t know better, so it would be racist. I’m praying that they heard me.”

Ms. Kohrs spoke like a born educator: patient, crisp, and always with an air of measuring just how much information to convey to me at once. When I asked her how a homeschool teacher had come to be the leader in the fight over the public schools, she set down her lavender tea and took a sharp breath. “Homeschooling is a lot more expensive when the kids are high school age. These names are about power and control, about who gets to say that’s my school where the bedrock of citizenship is formed. And look: I’m doing my best to figure out how to raise three white boys.”

Ms. Kohrs had also invited DeLois Warr. She walked into the Kohrs kitchen talking a mile a minute, about getting lost, about the demise of the library’s story hour, about how people kept giving her plants because her garden was pretty. Black and extremely thin, she wore an oversized t-shirt with a cartoonishly cute dog on the front. “God made us, animals and all, even what we call predators,” she said to me by way of hello. “I want your opinion on the names before I share mine: I don’t know who my enemies are. When you hurt my feelings, you hurt them a long time.”

I could do no more than clear my throat before she started telling me about her experience integrating Stonewall back in ’62 — under escort from the National Guard. The moment she came through the front door, she said, a boy told her to go back to Africa. “After that, my brother and I may as well have been plaques on the wall.” Stonewall refused to accept the credits she had earned at the school in the neighboring county; at the same time, teachers forced her to work—unpaid—in the study hall helping the white kids with their studies. When the class rings were distributed, Stonewall just couldn’t find her receipt anywhere. Ms. Warr then raised her hand and grabbed her elbow to mime propping an arm that had grown tired and droopy in waiting. “‘By law I have to let you answer,’” Warr said in imitation of a man’s voice. Then she shook her head. “I’m not going to the school board meeting tomorrow. This county won’t listen to anything you tell them.”

Ms. Kohrs nodded. She would know. Despite all the letters, no school board member had agreed to meet with her.

Over the course of the conversation, it became clear that no one had been more involved in the fight over the county’s schools than Ms. Warr. She had not only integrated the schools — she then went on to spend her whole career in the county school system, even though in the nineties she had to sue the district in order to prevent wrongful termination. She had sent her children to Stonewall; if the names were restored, her grandchildren would also attend Stonewall. “I have love for all the people involved in this thing about the old names,” Ms. Warr said, “but they’re hurting the kids. The new names are for everyone.”

I ended by asking Ms. Kohrs and Ms. Warr what they thought it would take to settle the question of the names once and for all. Neither offered specifics. “Changing the names back puts off the inevitable,” Ms. Kohrs insisted, which surprised me given the enduring resiliency of Confederate iconography. When I pressed her, she declined to elaborate on the future she thought was coming for Shenandoah County; she said she hoped that, if the old names were reinstated, the “federal government would make a statement against the decision.” Ms. Warr didn’t answer my question at all and changed the subject.

Later that day I spoke with the women’s leading opponent, Mike Scheibe. Editor of the local right-wing paper The Freedom Press, he had become a leader in the fight as the spokesman for Coalition for Better Schools, an anonymously funded activist group pushing the Confederate names. He was bald, friendly, and quick to speak in confidential tones. “I think the idea that we’ll deal with racism by changing a name is political grandstanding and a fallacy. These school names were here for decades. Where was all this talk before? If you want the community to heal, you don’t pull out its personal heritage.”

This was standard stuff. But then he surprised me. He voiced a grievance not so different from the one I’d heard from Ms. Kohrs and Ms. Warr: he and people like him had been ignored and unheard. “If people had been asked and the majority had said that the names should be changed, people would have accepted it,” he said. “But we weren’t asked. That’s why this push for the old names is all about process. Our rights as citizens to take part in government — we didn’t get those rights. If people were more willing to listen to the other side and calmly discuss issues, maybe we could deal with the root of the problem.”

Mr. Scheibe appeared confident he would soon be heard — and that he would win. Indeed, he was already preparing to restore the Confederate names in time for August, when the next school year would start. “People kept the old signs,” he assured me when I doubted his ambitious timetable. “They were stored on school property, just in case.”

In conversations with these conservative activists, I found a level of expertise in local politics that would be the pride of any civics teacher. I also heard from each person an account of the relevant facts that achieved an unsettling level of message discipline. The story, as they told it, always started with the moment in 2020 that the school board went rogue. Briefly, here is their version of events: emails obtained through FOIA requests showed four of the board’s six members scheming with the superintendent to change the names as quickly as possible and with minimal public input. Marty Helsley was deliberately excluded from the planning for fear that he would make the motion public prematurely, and thus spark a backlash that could tank the scheme. While another member worried that the voters would be angry if the measure was “rushed through without giving [the public] a chance to weigh in,” the superintendent worried that waiting a month would attract outsiders who would create a fractious environment. He then appeared to concede that the county would not support the plan: “There is the right thing to do and the thing to do based on majority opinion.” The whole name-changing process, including a break for Fourth of July weekend, took less than two weeks. Putting the plan in action ultimately cost more than $300k.

Activists challenged the school board’s process in court. They found many faults with how the name changing had been conducted, but seized on two aspects in particular: one, the process had been done too quickly; and two, covid protocols had prevented everyone from attending the meeting in person and being heard. The Shenandoah County Circuit Court dismissed the case; the state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

Activists found more success in grassroots organizing. In Virginia, school board members do not run with party affiliation, but in 2021 right-wing candidates won all three races in a landslide. As one local put it to me, “Everyone and their mom knew where the candidates stood on the names.” The new members put forward a motion to restore the names; that motion failed, 3-3. And so three more candidates ran in 2023, and won just as big. So, with all six members of the 2020 school board having received the boot, Mr. Scheibe and his coalition had reason to be confident.

To bolster their claim to speak for the majority, the coalition conducted a survey by postcard. Mr. Scheibe said he sent one to every household served by the two schools in question (though, it should be said, my family did not receive one). “The names can be restored at no expense to the taxpayer,” the postcard read. “Please indicate your choice of one name for each school.” According to Mr. Scheibe, 13% of recipients responded, and 91% of them preferred the Confederate names. “We’ve lined up private donors to pay for this,” Mr. Scheibe hurried to add. “If the names restoration will cost taxpayers a dime, we won’t do it at all.”

When I spoke with Karen Whetzel, the chair of the school board in 2020, she sounded weary. She did not dispute Mr. Scheibe’s account, though she did not seem interested in discussing what had happened. “We worked in good faith,” she said simply. “For some people, it’s never the right time.”

Ms. Whetzel had served the county’s schools for more than thirty years, including a stint as principal at Stonewall, but after voting to remove the Confederate names, she had been put through hell. The threats against her were so severe and credible that the sheriff put a patrol on her street. Her opponents filed a petition in court that accused her of malfeasance; some members of her church signed it. Others in the community confronted her more directly. “I was at the store once and a lady screamed at me, ‘How dare you show your face after what you did to us. Why don’t you go back to West Virginia where you came from?”

Ms. Whetzel may have received the worst of the abuse, but it was widespread. Ms. Kohrs had been the target of awful cruelty online. People had lost friends; most people I met knew a family under strain due to internal division. But one thing supporters on both sides agreed on was that this fight over school names could best be understood as an extension of the national political fight, which was also splitting households.

When I asked Ms. Whetzel what she made of the experience now that a few years had passed, she was silent for a long time. “I know a lot of people who supported the new names but refused to do so publicly,” she said softly. “Even so, I’m not sure anymore that the other side shares my values.”

Brad Skipper, chair of the county Democrats, echoed Ms. Whetzel’s impression of intimidation: he said he knew prominent Republicans who opposed restoration of the names but would not say so publicly. He also echoed the sense that people here did not share his values and told me about a phone call he had received from a friend abroad. “I thought you’d tamed all the rednecks in Shenandoah County,” Mr. Skipper quoted with a laugh. “Hell no, we haven’t!”

I also failed to get the county Republicans to speak on the record. However, when I reached out to the Shenandoah GOP Freedom Caucus, the representative who got in touch, Karen Kajowski, was eager to talk. She first took efficient aim at the local GOP — “They’re tax-and-spend and not really conservative and won’t even take stands on things” — she moved on to the issue at hand. She told me about voting out the woke members of the school board and, in language familiar to me by now, about how the name change in 2020 had been “pushed down people’s throats. Then, when anyone complained about the process, they were called a racist.”

I asked her what she would say to any student who felt unwelcome at a school named after Confederates. “I’m not a great person to talk to about feelings,” she replied, “but if students feel unwelcome, they should talk to a guidance counselor. I would also refer to our preexisting policy on bullying. Bullying is not tolerated because we don’t allow people to feel unwelcome.” 

On May 9th, the school board met in the Peter Muhlenberg Middle School, named after a slaveholding Lutheran minister who had fought with distinction against the British in the Revolutionary War. The meeting was held in the cafeteria. All tables had been removed and replaced with lines of plastic-backed chairs, but the greasy smell of tater tots remained. “At our school…character always counts” was printed on a brightly colored banner on the left; “Good things happen to people who try” was emblazoned on another to the right. At the back of the room, seat after seat had been reserved for members of the media, who, to a person, seemed more interested in their laptops than in the room in front of them.

It was the most diverse crowd I had ever seen in Shenandoah County. There were farmers in their tell-tale uniform of sun-faded denim suspenders with a bent little notebook and pen in the breast pocket. A group of high school students in clothes too nice for school sat in a perfect little row and exuded more professionalism than anyone else in the hall. The county democrats had handed out pins that read Red Wine & Blue, which many relatively wealthy looking middle-aged people had agreed to put on. A boy who looked to be about twelve kept trying to corral his world-class mullet under a mesh baseball cap. Many of the name-restoration activists wore matching grey shirts: on the back, under a drawn monument of a man on a horse, read Pride, Honor, Tradition. Stonewall Jackson. One activist was more individualistic; his shirt had a photo of the general and read Taken down by friendly fire in 2020. And everywhere, just everywhere, there were the emblems of the national political contest: Biden shirts, Trump jackets, NRA hats.

After a prolonged private session, the school board finally walked in to face its public. They did so from an elevated table on the stage at the front of the room. To the left of the table was the American flag, to the right the Virginia flag, each tightly wrapped around its pole. Board member Brandi Rutz kicked off the proceedings with a prayer. “Please bow your head,” she instructed the room. “Compassionate, gracious God. All tribes and tongues will one day acknowledge Jesus as Lord, alongside this we know the truth proclaimed in your word, that we are all created in your image. Too easily we allow division-based culture, language, and/or race to change our behavior. Please change our behavior and make us united…” She went on.

But the emcee of the night’s proceedings was Dennis Barlow, the chairman and by far the board’s most distinguished member. He had made colonel in the U.S. Army. He had taught at Princeton and at James Madison, the university in the next county down the highway. He had worked at the Pentagon for the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the director in the Special Operations Directorate. Grey-haired by the time he won his seat on the school board, he brought a patina of gentility to his remarks and gestures — and demanded “good speechifying” from the public in return when each person’s turn at the microphone came. “We expect speakers to be courteous,” he said, “to address the whole board, and to refrain from personal attacks.”

No doubt sensing the flood of feeling about to be let loose, he made very clear the rules of what was about to happen. People would be called up to speak in the order that they had signed the sheet. If they were not present, they would not get to speak. Though at most meetings members of the public got three minutes at the mic, tonight only two: everyone must have their chance to be heard.

But it was only when the first person had been called to speak that the dynamics of the staging became clear. The man stood at a lectern at the end of the center aisle, his back to everyone in the cafeteria. To his right, on the projection screen, “2:00” appeared in huge white numbers on a black background. He looked up and, though he had been told to address the whole board, at that distance had to turn his head left and right to speak to address all six. The scene suggested a supplicant come to make a plea before king and court.

Those who had arrived early and gotten their names on the sheet first were almost uniformly opposed to the restoration of the names. Many offered a history lesson, though few started their accounts in the same place; perhaps there was just too much history to choose from to match the unity modeled by the opposing side. Some speakers emphasized that the Confederate men in question were traitors to America. Others talked about the evils of slavery. Someone talked about how the original decision to name the schools after Confederates had been part of Virginia’s Massive Resistance to desegregation in the fifties — and how the schools, explicitly intended for the white race, had been funded with nearly half a million dollars that had been misappropriated.

Others eschewed the historical approach. One Stonewall alum said having that name on her CV had hurt her employment prospects. Someone quoted Colonel Barlow back to himself: “I would be uncomfortable if I were Black attending a school with these [Confederate] names.” One woman sang a song; another proposed school names that honored Christ. One of the students wondered why the school board had time to think about school names when all last fall there had been no soap in the girls’ bathroom at Stonewall — a problem she said had been “solved” by the removal of the empty dispenser. And when Ms. Warr, who had showed up after all, went to the front of the room, she did not use even one of her two minutes. “The day I walked into Stonewall scarred me for life,” she said. “It’s going to hurt me again if my grandchildren have to go through what I went through.”

But as the evening wore on, more and more of the speakers spoke in favor of the Confederate names. Many, many people called out the process of the 2020 school board; no one, not one, explained why this required restoring the old names now that they’d voted the bastards out. Some criticized the laughable ugliness of the new names. Many talked about the military brilliance and religious conviction of Stonewall Jackson (Turner Ashby and Robert E. Lee went oddly forgotten all evening). Some excused his slaveholding by saying he had only married into ownership (not true). One man said that since Stonewall likely had Asperger’s syndrome (plausible), the name should be understood as elevating the special needs community. A student athlete asked the board to restore the names so that he could wear a name on his jacket that made him proud. Speaker after speaker denied that there had been racism at the county’s schools; nothing seemed to make this side’s speakers more upset than the accusation that they were racist.

As more on the pro-restoration side were heard, the boundaries of the community became clearer. Many invoked the number of generations they’d been in the county, even back to 18th century land grants, to distinguish themselves from “beltway refugees.” Some wondered aloud why some of the people on the other side had come to Shenandoah County if it was so bad and so racist. Many talked about the will of the “taxpayer;” no one spoke of the “citizen” nor the “resident.” The message was plain: certain people had more claim to ownership of the place than others. (The only mention of the county’s original inhabitants I encountered on my whole trip home was a roadside plaque under the heading “Last Indian-Settler Conflict.”)

In the four hours of public comment, it was the testimony of Stephanie Bullett Smith, a Black graduate of Stonewall, class of 1983, that stood out. “I prayerfully encourage the school board to make a heartfelt decision,” she said before shifting gears and visibly collecting herself. “When my brother was at Stonewall and on the football team, he was spit on in the face and called a n****r by a school board member today, Tom Streett. People need to know that because people like that should not be serving in public office.” She then turned to address Mr. Streett directly. “You never apologized to my brother. It went to the administration, and no one did anything.”

“No personal attacks!” a man in the audience shouted at Ms. Smith.

The room erupted. Col. Barlow struggled to reimpose order. But the room was never the same after Ms. Smith’s speech. That word — the idea of hierarchy that it embodied and all the suffering that idea had wrought — was why we were all there and what everyone else had been talking around. Ms. Smith made all the polite abstractions that followed after her sound tinny.

A brief break followed the end of public comment. When we reconvened, well after eleven o’clock, Colonel Barlow said that Mr. Street had asked for a chance to respond to the accusation. Col. Barlow had conferred — behind closed doors — with the parliamentarian and, given the gravity of the charge, had decided to break with the usual process in order to allow Mr. Streett a chance to respond.

“I wanted to point out that a false accusation was made against me,” he said. “During that time period, if it happened, they accused the wrong Streett. He is deceased now. So I just wanted to make that clear.”

That done, it was soon time for the school board members to vote — but first they wanted to be heard, too. They did not limit themselves to two minutes in telling us what the names meant to them. Far from it. Two members’ remarks stood out.

Col. Barlow acknowledged some of the injustices involved in the formation of Stonewall, but moved swiftly to talking about what the Civil War meant to him. “War is hell,” he explained, “but we still had great soldiers, great heroes, great heroines, from both races and both nations.” He made a gesture of empathy. “Of course I would be unsettled if I were Black and going through this [name restoration]. But unsettled doesn’t mean it would be the most horrible thing that ever happened, and so the hyperbole here is rather stunning.” He summed up his remarks with a lesson he’d learned from his humanitarian work abroad. “But the way we kill democracy is to say the ends justify the means. The things that the school board got away with, and you’re telling me that’s right? I can’t accept that. There must be redress.”

A woman named Gloria Carlineo, a retired attorney born and raised in Puerto Rico, spoke with the most passion. She started by saying that her decision came down to the process by which the names had been changed, a view that she then belied by a series of grievances so long that Col. Barlow asked her to take a break in the middle so other board members could speak.

She summarized the actions of the previous school board. “It is political indoctrination by a minority imposing their ideology on the majority, and it is our job to fix that. Process is an integral part of our nation of laws.” And she reminded us that the catalyst for changing the names George Floyd’s murder had happened in a different state, not in Virginia. But then she moved on to the subject that occupied the bulk of her remarks: the inflammatory rhetoric and the name-calling of those who favored the restoration of the old school names. “Specifically, I want to talk about the ugly accusations of racism and even white supremacy.”

She was most incensed of all about the emails she’d received asking her to put herself, a woman born and raised speaking Spanish in Puerto Rico, in the shoes of Blacks and Hispanics. “This type of condescension and ignorance may work with others, but it’s not going to work with me.” She quoted a letter she’d received saying Hispanics probably didn’t fully understand what was at stake in the names debate. “In other words, because we choose not to be victims and be offended by everything, we must be ignorant. I know what it is to be the subject of discrimination and prejudice. My achievements were not the result of any affirmative action but the result of my own hard work and sacrifice, including working two or three jobs at a time. I had help from no one other than my almighty God. The difference again: I choose not to be a victim. That same ideology that victimizes people of color and finds racism everywhere is the same ideology that has taken God out of the public square, that wants us to believe a biological boy can become a girl, and that we should open our borders to all.”

At 12:28 in the morning, the school board voted, 5 to 1, to restore the old names. The audience’s muted response suggested a feeling of anticlimax. Indeed, the board members had made clear early on that they had their values, they had their interpretation of the symbols, and they had the votes—so who was going to stop them?


The next day brought the awful, bright light of a hungover morning for many of the defeated. Ms. Kohrs did not have much to say. She intended to take a long walk, she said, and she hoped that the events of the previous night would elevate the conversation going forward. But the other side could not have been more eager to talk with me. Their work was done, and they had won.

Mostly, I got more recitations about process, a story that had come to seem like armor. But, finally, someone got real with me. His name was Charles Streett, a 60-year-old who ran a refrigerated trucking company and whose breathing was audibly labored. Though he didn’t have kids in the public school system, he told me that he’d missed only four school board meetings in the past four years. “I feel like I’ve been on the school board,” he said with a laugh.

At first, he offered me the standard fare: the process had been wrong, George Washington had owned slaves but nobody objected to him, Stonewall hadn’t had nearly so many slaves, the ones he had had belonged to his wife or were disabled and so required care, he was just defending his homeland. My patience had reached its limit: “Is there anything Stonewall could have done that would be so bad you would say no, don’t name the school after him?”

“Slavery is wrong,” he said quickly. “I get that. But I don’t look up to Stonewall because of the war — the war was just unfortunate. I look at what Stonewall did in the rest of his life — his success in the Mexican-American War, becoming a professor at VMI, his religious teachings — I couldn’t have done all that and he did all that in less than forty years. Whereas now people can’t even get out of the house. To me, he symbolizes never giving up. That attitude is how I try to live.”

A bit choked up, he told me I could call him “24/7” with more questions. When I laughed, he said, “No, 24/7.” I believe he meant it. There was such gratitude in his voice when he thanked me for listening to him.

A visitor to the area need only visit any of the ten Walmarts (yes, ten) within about an hour’s drive of my home to see who has benefited in this area over the past generation and who is struggling not to give up. In my hometown people are mocked for not seeing how the country’s government is rigged to screw over places like ours.

To which I imagine the liberal reader saying, “Yes, but then why do they vote for politicians who do nothing for them?” In some sense, I share this view, though I also notice that when liberals vote against their economic self-interest they call it principled. In a more important sense, though, this retort is proven nonsense. Rich people — people who have won in the system — have lost the white working class by telling them what’s in their self-interest. Now the same winners are trying the same message on the nonwhite working class, which this fall is expected to vote for Trump by record margins.

Nor do I think it is fair to say Trump has done nothing for people here. As a Southern liberal living in the North, I am often called on to explain Trump’s appeal, though it has been nearly ten years since the man came down the escalator. Trump, I explain, tells his voters that the people telling them they should be ashamed of themselves are the ones who should really be ashamed.

Nothing made plainer the force of that appeal than watching my neighbors fight over the school names. My old framework that what voters cared about — that what brought either side to the polls and to public meetings — were practical matters like poverty, taxes, and school performance had to be retired. No, what motivated most people was fighting about how the iconography on the county’s public institutions made them feel. There could apparently be no discussion of who should be honored without a shadow discussion about who should be shamed. And yet after so much talk about commemorating past heroes and about learning from history, the county’s majority had once again fought hard to put its honor and pride first—even after their neighbors had clearly told them the toll that doing so would take.

Later that day, I inadvertently paid a visit to another tribute to the local majority’s ancestors. Ms. Warr was the only person I interviewed who asked anything of me. Two things, in fact. First, that I spell her name right (DeLois Warr, not Delois War). And second, that I pay a visit to the Mt. Jackson Colored Cemetery before I left town. So that afternoon, I drove past the farms and church marquees — “A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised — to go have a look.

When I made my way down the town’s main street, past the shuttered moviehouse and the decrepit duckpin bowling alley, I found that the lampposts had been hung with little banners. Each one had a photo of a man below the American flag. The Town of Mt. Jackson honors…said each banner before listing the man’s name, his war, and his branch of service. White men all, block after block.

I could not get to the Mt. Jackson Colored Cemetery without first taking in a grander monument. On the side of Main Street was the site of an old Confederate cemetery, now called Our Soldiers’ Cemetery. Fenced with black metal, there were no graves, only a single monument topped with a statue of a mustached soldier, a little bird hopping on his cap and droppings on his shoulders. He stood, head down, his arms crossed around the business end of his rifle, his hat resting on his hip. A narrow brick path around him enforced a respectful distance. “To all Confederates,” read the text on the front, under the tribute to the United Daughters of the Confederacy who had put up the monument in 1903. Then, unattributed text on the side of the base: “Ne’er braver bled for a brighter land, nor brighter land had a cause so grand.”

To the west, across the disused railroad tracks, beyond a swathe of sickly grass, was the Mt. Jackson Colored Cemetery. There was no path leading up to it, just someone’s grassy driveway with a dirt track that veered off to the right. The main monument was in the shape of a large tombstone and listed “names of burials known in this cemetery.” Many Bulletts, many Banks, a few people born before the war. Someone had left flowers. Beyond the monument were a few uneven lines of graves. The larger ones were still legible, despite the lichen; many centered the same attachable decoration, shaped to look like the front of an old-fashioned radio; some markers were just rough-hewn stones. The cemetery held no more than a few dozen marked graves in all. I found the place quiet and, in the shade of the large tree at the center, peaceful.

But not for long. I soon noticed that on the south side of the cemetery, beyond a wooden fence, was a two-story white house in good condition — it was this home’s driveway I had walked along to reach the cemetery. In the backyard, a flag flew. A figure stood on the snake of the Gadsden flag holding a handgun and an assault rifle. “Are You Threatening Me?” read the text at the bottom. And once I noticed the flag, I could not relax. Soon I moved back towards the Confederate monument, keeping one eye over my shoulder.

There, I looked carefully in all directions to see if I was being watched. To the south, there was a gas station and a down-at-heel gun shop. To the north were plain brick offices. And to the east, across the street, was the headquarters of Holtzman Corp., the petro company whose four-story building, on the site of the old Confederate hospital, was by far the grandest structure in town — and ornamentally guarded by two polished cannons.

Bill Holtzman! If Shenandoah County had a squire, it was he. An alum of the local military academy from its all-white days, he had over the decades built up a vast oil company and become one of the biggest Republican donors in the state. Many, many people I spoke with believed he was the one who would be paying for the name restoration; no one else’s name had even come up. However, every time I called Mr. Holtzman, his secretary said I’d just missed him, darn. But why should he have spoken to me to be heard? Everything in the county seemed to be going his way.

Just then my phone rang. Standing so close to his headquarters, I felt sure it was Mr. Holtzman. But it was Mr. Streett, calling back to say that he had thought of something he wanted to add to his remarks. “The vote on the names was all about process,” he said. His voice had hardened.

 If I learned anything from this fight, it is that only a fool tries to tell another what something “really” symbolizes. I will be such a fool. The symbol that I find most meaningful is not the names but a flag I saw hung throughout the county, including a couple hundred yards from the Mt. Jackson Colored Cemetery. On the left of the flag are the stars and bars; on the right are the stars and stripes. In the middle, the two flags fuse. I do not see an expression of union and reconciliation on that flag. To the contrary, I see an effort to bring the Confederate style and habits of mind to the nation as a whole: the flag shouts that only the people “we” consider legitimate may tell “us” how to live. The flag says you are on notice that “we” are ready to fight you if you try to claim a power we think you don’t deserve.

Because that “we” has always served the interests of rich southern white men, it can be easy to miss that the “we” is no longer just white people or even just Southerners. Though the movement blossoming here still has its taproot directly in the Confederacy, the “we” happily includes Puerto Ricans and Arabs and people like Mr. Scheibe who moved down from Pennsylvania. The “we” now excludes people like Ms. Whetzel, despite her whiteness and her years of service to the local schools. But the “we” has always — always — excluded Ms. Warr and treated her requests with contempt.

And so I want to offer Ms. Carlineo a different idea of what choosing not to be a victim looks like. It looks like Ms. Warr and Ms. Kohrs, two educators working together to achieve what proved to be beyond the county’s majority once again: to prioritize the feelings and needs of its most vulnerable. It looks like Ms. Warr teaching Ms. Kohrs’s youngest son while his father quietly cooked the family meal. “My parents taught me to be friendly, to keep to myself, and to be honest,” Ms. Warr told the white boy. “A higher power is always watching down.”

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