Questions & Considerations: Robert E. Lee HS Name Change:
You don’t get unity by ignoring the questions that have to be faced.
— Jay Weatherill
I am going to jump into the fray of the REL name change dialogue for a bit. Why? Because I have questions. I don’t necessarily have the answers, but the questions, I believe, are worthy of consideration. By the way, I have a habit of asking “Why?” and other questions. You’ll see! I don’t know that it is a desirable habit, but I do know that it sometimes keeps me awake at night.
Admittedly, my first inclination with the REL name change issue was “Oh, geez! Do we want to go there? Do we need to go there? It’s history! Let it lie!” You know, “Sleeping dogs don’t bite!” Yet, as I struggle with my own questions and my heart for loving and honoring all persons with the respect and dignity they deserve as sacred human lives, I continue to ask “Why?” And, specifically, “Why did our city fathers, all white men, name the school after the Confederate General Lee, who, to my knowledge had not particular, specific, or sentimental ties to the City of Tyler?” Let’s think about it!
In 1958, in the rising tide of the Civil Rights Movement, in the wake of the 1954 Brown vs, Topeka School Board of Education ruling making school segregation the law of the land, and in the midst of increased racial tension and violence, our city fathers name a modern, new school after a “historical” Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, who for all his good attributes had some unsettling character problems. Were there any good reasons to do this? Or, were our city fathers, like much of white America at the time and especially the South, recoiling and resisting the changing times, “the writing on the wall” with regard to segregation and the emerging voices and political power of our African American citizens? Our city fathers had grown up in the Jim Crow south of East Texas, and their world of separatism and “white supremacy” was being turned upside down. Were they fearful? Were they angry? Was the Robert E. Lee name a subtle, or not so subtle, means of defiance? Were they “thumbing their noses” at the new wave of authority. Excuse me, but in East Texas vernacular, “We’ll do what we damn well please, just watch us!” I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do not dare claim to know the hearts, thoughts, or motives of our city fathers in 1958. The questions simply come from my habit of asking “why.” I do believe they are worthy questions that we all should consider. I repeat, I DO NOT know the answers! If anyone has more insight and/or personal experience with the Robert E. Lee naming process, I would welcome your thoughts.
I do know that Robert E. Lee High School has been and continues to be an exceptional school with achievement in all areas–academic, music, art, theater, and athletics–worthy of community praise. I commend the past and current faculty, staff, administration and students. I began my career in education as a student teacher at Robert E. Lee. My two sons attended and graduated from Robert E. Lee. I was the ever-present, proud band mom in the stands and out supporting our students and cheering for the football team. Our schools in so many ways are the epicenter of our community and family activities. We need and must rally in supporting them.
I do know that Robert E. Lee High School has been impacted by the racial implications of the name, the Rebel mascot, and the Confederate flag. We know the history, a court mandated mascot change and the banning of the use of the Confederate flag. This occurred in 1972 after four African American football players refused to run onto the field under the huge Confederate flag. Think about it! Can we blame them? Here’s my habit again, “Why was the name not changed then?” Was Judge Justice seeking a compromise action that would in some ways appease all sides of the community in the context of that point in time when Lee was a majority white school? Again, I do not know? I simply ask the questions and encourage consideration.
Again, I ask “Why?” Why would we not consider a name change for Lee High School at this time? Given the tenor of the unseemly, ugly rise in white supremacy groups and racial tension in our nation, why not be proactive and consider the good that we can propagate with the name change. If, and again, I Do Not know, but if the Lee name selection was motivated in any way by the anger, fear, and defiance of a threatened Jim Crow South mentality, do we want even a hint of that legacy prominent in our community? With a thoughtful, considered name change could we not chalk up many positives for our community? We can acknowledge and be respectful of the history and feelings of the current student community at Lee. We know that Lee is now a minority majority campus with the majority of the student body being non-white. Being a teenage student these days is stressful enough, if the name change is beneficial to the students and the overall morale of the school community, then let’s change it. Let’s get some student input! What are they thinking? What do they want for their school? Don’t we want what is best for our students-all of our students? There I go, questions again! We, a community of the whole, can model reasonable dialogue along with considered and respectful actions in our community and for our children to witness and learn from and hopefully repeat in generations to come.
We do know that REL, thanks to the good folks of Tyler, is slated for an extensive remodel and renovation project. Again, I ask the question, “ With the opening of this “new” school, will there ever be a more opportune time to recognize the thousands of students that have passed through Lee’s corridors, applaud the gigantic efforts of its students and leaders, and celebrate the multitude of student accomplishments during its 60-year history while dedicating a “new” school with a new name. A new name does not erase the past, but offers an opportunity for an authentic narrative of the history, and can usher in a new era, a new chapter, championing and promoting all that is good in and for a beloved school and the community it serves. Another question! Can we do this as a united community? I don’t know? The answer is only within each of us individually.
Again, I DO NOT know the answers. I simply succumb to my habit and ask the questions. Questions, in my opinion, worthy of consideration. My final question, and I am still questioning, “Are there any good, rationale reasons not to move forward with a name change for Robert E. Lee High School, or at the very least initiate an exploratory process focused on a possible name change?”
Let’s just breathe, ask the hard questions, consider answers together, and explore the possibilities before us.
You don’t get unity by ignoring the questions that have to be faced.
— –Jeff Weatherhill