Stonewall Jackson, Champion of Black Literacy

by R.G. Williams, Jr.

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

"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 ‘They 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. ‘Now,’ said he, ‘we 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.

Copyright © 2002