Stonewall Jackson, Champion of Black Literacy

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Mention
the legendary Confederate General Stonewall Jackson to most people
and the image that immediately comes to mind is one of a fearless,
hard-fighting Southerner known for his eccentricities, who some
say fought for slavery. But Thomas Jonathan Jackson was a much more
complicated man.

Indeed,
a careful study of his life would lead one to believe that General
Jackson might even be described as a civil-rights leader. Yes, that's
right, a civil-rights leader. In the nineteenth century, prior to
the War of Federal Aggression, Virginia law prohibited whites from
teaching blacks to read and write. Though Stonewall Jackson was
known as an upstanding and law-abiding citizen in Lexington, he
routinely broke this law every Sunday.

Though
the law was not strictly enforced, Jackson quietly practiced civil
disobedience by having an organized Sunday school class every Sunday
afternoon, teaching black children to read, and teaching them the
way of salvation. There are still churches active today that were
founded by blacks reached with the Gospel through Jackson’s efforts.
Jackson taught the Sunday school class for blacks while he served
as a deacon in Lexington's Presbyterian Church. It was in the autumn
of 1855 that Jackson, with the permission of his pastor, Dr. William
S. White, began the class in a building near the main sanctuary.
Every Sabbath afternoon shortly before 3:00 pm, the church bell
would toll letting everyone know it was time to worship the Creator
of all men. Jackson quickly gained the admiration and respect of
blacks in the surrounding area as his zeal was apparent, and he
took this solemn responsibility seriously. Attendance often numbered
more than one hundred and Dr.White later wrote that Jackson "threw
himself into this work with all of his characteristic energy and
wisdom."

Jackson
not only demanded much of himself in reaching slaves and free blacks,
he demanded much of his students. His classes began promptly at
three, and once he started, the classroom door was locked and latecomers
were not allowed entrance. Bibles and books were awarded to those
who were faithful and showed satisfactory progress. He also expected
his students to give to the Lord's work.

"On
one occasion Gen. Thomas J. Jackson was appointed one of the collectors
of the Bible Society. When he returned his list it was discovered
that, at the end, copied by the clerk of session, was a considerable
number of names written in pencil, to each of which a very small
amount was attached. Moreover, the session, recognizing very few
of the names, asked who these were. Jackson's characteristic reply
was u2018They are the militia; as the Bible Society is not a Presbyterian
but a Christian cause, I deemed it best to go beyond the limits
of our own church.' They were the names chiefly of free Negroes."

This
relationship between Jackson and the blacks of his community was
not all that uncommon in the South, particularly pertaining to whites
who were devout Christians.

"In
Jackson's mind, slaves were children of God placed in subordinate
situations for reasons only the Creator could explain. Helping them
was a missionary effort for Jackson. Their souls had to be
saved. Although Jackson could not alter the social status of slaves,
he could and did display Christian decency to those whose lot it
was to be in bondage…he was emphatically the black man's friend."
— Dr. James I. Robertson

It
was obvious that Jackson's concern for his black brethren was real
and something that occupied his mind even at the height of the war.

"Soon
after one of the great battles, a large crowd gathered one day at
the post office in Lexington, anxiously awaiting the opening of
the mail, that they might get the particulars concerning the great
battle which they had heard had been fought. The venerable pastor
of the Presbyterian Church (Rev. Dr. W.S. White, from whom I received
the incident) was of the company, and soon had handed him a letter
which he recognized as directed in Jackson’s well known handwriting.
u2018Now,' said he, u2018we will have the news! Here is a letter from General
Jackson himself.' The crowd eagerly gathered around, but heard to
their very great disappointment a letter which made not the most
remote allusion to the battle or the war, but which enclosed a check
for fifty dollars with which to buy books for his colored Sunday
school, and was filled with inquiries after the interests of the
school and the church. He had no time for inclination to write of
the great victory and the imperishable laurels he was winning; but
he found time to remember his noble work among God’s poor, and to
contribute further to the good of the Negro children whose true
friend and benefactor he had always been. And he was accustomed
to say that one of the very greatest privations to him which the
war brought, was that he was taken away from his loved work in the
colored Sunday school." ~ William Jones

It
was further obvious that the blacks of Lexington knew that Jackson's
love and concern for their spiritual well-being was real and they
returned his affection.

"Jackson
thus acquired a wonderful influence over the colored people of that
whole region, and to this day his memory is warmly cherished by
them. When Hunter’s army was marching into Lexington, the Confederate
flag which floated over Jackson’s grave was hauled down and concealed
by some of the citizens. A lady who stole into the cemetery one
morning while the Federal army was occupying the town, bearing fresh
flowers with which to decorate the hero’s grave, was surprised to
find a miniature Confederate flag planted on the grave with a verse
of a familiar hymn pinned to it. Upon inquiry she found that a colored
boy, who had belonged to Jackson’s Sunday school, had procured the
flag, gotten some one to copy a stanza of a favorite hymn which
Jackson had taught him, and had gone in the night to plant the flag
on the grave of his loved teacher." ~ William Jones

General
Stonewall Jackson was, without question, one of the greatest generals
America ever produced. He was fearless in battle and his legendary
"Valley Campaign" fought in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia
is still studied to this day. But more than that, he was a devout
Christian and a lover of all good men – regardless of their
color. Southerners and lovers of truth should do everything possible
to educate future generations about the truth of our history, especially
when it comes to the heroes of our faith and of our beloved Southland.
Only in truth can we worship the Creator of all men.

Sources

January
18, 2002

R.G.
Williams, Jr. [send him mail],
is proprietor of Virginia
Gentleman Books
.

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