Years before Monique Braxton became an Emmy-winning news broadcaster for NBC10 Philadelphia, she attended Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Va. — a school named after a Confederate general.
Earlier this summer, when she learned that the Prince William County School Board planned to change the name of her alma mater and Stonewall Middle School, she rallied friends, family, and former students to nominate her parents, Carroll and the late Celestine Braxton, both trailblazing activists who had a profound impact on Manassas with their integration efforts.
“Once one of the TV stations in the D.C. area did a story on it. Then other people that we hadn’t talked to in decades saw the story and got involved,” Braxton said. “They were filling out citizen input forms, they were speaking virtually [at the school board hearings], they signed our petition. … Some people described it as a movement.”
Their efforts prevailed in June, when the school board renamed Stonewall Middle School as Unity Braxton Middle School. It was also decided that Stonewall Jackson High School would be renamed Unity Reed High School, honoring a beloved former security assistant, Arthur Reed. Unity Braxton plans to hold an in-person ceremony to commemorate the name change later in the school year, according to principal Mike Nicely. The school’s signage is planned to be updated next week.
Braxton’s mother, Celestine, taught in Prince William County for more than 30 years as an English and reading teacher, including at Stonewall Middle School. She was part of a second wave of Black teachers to integrate the county’s teaching staff.
Because she didn’t want her daughter to attend a segregated kindergarten, in the early 1960s, Celestine Braxton filed a formal complaint with city officials that urged Manassas schools and businesses to accept Black patrons. Consequently, her daughter, Monique, was the first Black kindergartner accepted by Manassas Presbyterian Church.
Teaching wasn’t “a subject or an assignment for her,” Braxton said. “Teaching was like her ministry.”
Celestine Braxton was as deeply invested in the success of her students as she was with her own family, her daughter said. “She was very strict but very loving,” Braxton said. “She was a strict disciplinarian, more so than my father, which is surprising because he’s the one with the military background.”
Braxton’s father is a Congressional Gold Medal recipient and a retired master gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps. He is one of the 20,000 Black Marines from 1942 to 1949 who received basic training at a segregated facility in Jacksonville, N.C. He served in World War II and the Korean War.
When Carroll Braxton, now 96, received the news that Stonewall Middle School would be renamed in his honor, “I was surprised, as most people would be who grew up in segregation,” he said. “When this came about, I didn’t think it would ever happen.”
The process of renaming a school is arduous, said Denise McPhail, who was brought on during the early stages of the Braxton campaign. There are many hearings and a mountain of deliberations. Before Unity Braxton, McPhail helped rename two other schools in Prince William County. McPhail is the wife of a Stonewall High School graduate and worked closely with Braxton on organizing the campaign for a Braxton renaming.
“It’s not that easy because of all the other submissions that come forward,” McPhail said. “Everyone is passionate about who they put forward.”
Of the dozens of names competing with the Braxtons, author and historian Ibram Xolani Kendi was among them. In 2016, Kendi won the National Book Award for nonfiction for Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi is a graduate of Stonewall Jackson High School.
“One night I was sitting in bed watching Stephen Colbert and there [Kendi] was, being interviewed,” McPhail said. “And they talked about his name being submitted for this thing. That was intense for us.”
According to a census of Confederate symbols in public spaces across America compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 147 schools with Confederate names, and 46 have been renamed.
“People of color have fought for years in Virginia, where there are Confederate statues and names on schools everywhere,” Braxton said. “It represents the vestiges of slavery, inequality, and subhuman treatment.”
The death of George Floyd in May has served as a catalyst for the push to remove names, statues, and other symbols that revere white supremacy. “It was something about watching a knee on someone’s neck for close to nine minutes that made people realize that Black lives matter,” Braxton said.
In July, a statue of Stonewall Jackson in Richmond, Va., was removed in compliance with an order by Mayor Levar Stoney.
The renaming of Stonewall Middle School “couldn’t have happened at a better time,” Braxton said. “This country is talking about consciousness, and we’re talking about reconciliation and healing and equality.”
Braxton anchored NBC10′s weekend evening newscast from 2000 to 2004 and worked as a breaking news reporter until 2017. She worked such high-profile stories as the 2016 Democratic National Convention and Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia. In 2013, she was named journalist of the year by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalist and in 2016, she was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneer Hall of Fame. Now, Braxton works as a media consultant and public speaker. She lives in the Philadelphia area, where she’s been taking care of her father during the coronavirus pandemic.
“He’s anxious to get back [to his Virginia] home and to his very active social life,” Braxton joked.
Of the many lessons that she and her younger brother, Robert “Bob” Braxton, who died in 1985, learned from her parents, tenacity and perseverance are among the most important, she said.
Her parents told her: “Look, there’s always going be someone who’s better than you, who’s smarter than you, who’s prettier than you, but be authentic. Bring your authentic self everywhere you go.”
Braxton believes that her mother, who passed away in 2014, is “rejoicing in heaven” from the news of a school being named after her family. “But she’d also be very shy about it.”