To hear today’s historians tell it, former President Bill Clinton was about the only Southern white to ever befriend blacks. This claim, it should be noted, is usually prefaced by references to such topics as welfare, affirmative action and cold-hearted Republicanism.
Decades earlier, during a time when godly principles and moral consciousness as normal parts of everyday society were actually honored and not disdained, another held that title—the same given by Richard G. Williams, Jr., to his concise and inspiring account, Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend.
Gasp now, or forever hold your peace.
Isn’t this Jackson the renowned, right arm of Gen. Robert E. Lee, who rode to respect and popularity on a wave of decisive and strategic war-time leadership? A leadership that came from the side of “infidel” against the side of “savior”—from the side of Southern bondsman against the side of “Let Freedom Reign” Yankee?
More to the point: Wasn’t this Jackson himself also a slave owner?
That’s the typical public-education summary and the easy, politically correct response for a nation of public-school victims who still struggle to accept that the Civil War was not simply a fight between pro-slavery bad guys and anti-slavery good guys.
But as Williams’ research proves, this Jackson was also much more.
“How did two preachers independently come to describe Jackson as ‘the black man’s friend,’” Williams asks in his introductory chapter, “and why were blacks in Lexington drawn to Jackson?”
“Why,” he continues, “did many of these blacks who had lived under the curse of slavery help to erect monuments and memorials to Jackson? Why did they weep at his passing? Why do some still honor him today?”
“This book,” Williams states, “seeks to answer these questions.”
And in a word, it does: Christianity.
“To argue that slavery and Christianity could peacefully coexist denies the obvious,” Williams writes. “Since man-stealing and slave-trading were specifically condemned and punishable by death in the Old Testament … American slavery was destined for God’s judgment from the beginning.”
Jackson understood that concept, along with many of his Southern Christian patriots who felt both entrapped and conflicted by the times, their biblical teachings and how best to respond to the “storm clouds of war on the horizon,” as Williams calls it.
“Thomas J. Jackson was no defender of slavery,” Williams continues. “He accepted it as the mysterious providence of God and worked to lift the existence of the slaves within his sphere of influence.”
How did he accomplish this? For a touching account of Jackson’s home-based family worship services conducted alongside his black servants, read the chapter titled “Stonewall Jackson and His Slaves.”
“In the evenings,” Williams writes, “passersby could see through the soft glow of candle and lantern light on the Jackson home the pious man of the house, his wife, and several inquisitive faces. With Bible open, the major … read the Scriptures … and the attending blacks were there because they wanted to be. … He was sincere in this, which they sensed and for which they admired him.”
That line of Jackson’s spirituality is repeated throughout the book—a skillful interweaving by Williams of well-documented facts and research with heartwarming and inspirational language in such a way that the reader barely notices the actual history lesson taking place. Had the lesson stopped there, though, a case could be made that the book only repeats what other Jackson historians—albeit not mainstream—have already recounted.
But where others have written of Stonewall and his Sunday school class for blacks, Williams acts more as messenger, stepping outside the realm of clinical observation and letting the emotional anecdotal evidence of others shoulder the burden of informing the reader. And where some historians have reported on the Christian thread woven into Jackson’s adulthood, Williams probes further to uncover an even lesser known aspect of Jackson’s faith: It likely began in childhood and was partly due to black influences.
“Interestingly,” Williams writes, “it is likely that Jackson’s early attraction to Christianity was aroused by the slaves in his own household … (and) by slaves that lived in his community.”
Explaining that what goes around comes around, Williams beautifully expresses the concept’s impact on Jackson’s life: “Seemingly insignificant people interacted with one another, exchanged acts of kindness, words of counsel, and shared the love of God. In doing so, they overcame obstacles and moved beyond their own prejudgments.”
Quite a lesson, it would seem, for a nation still confounded by black-white relations.