Robert E. Lee High School faces renaming

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Robert E. Lee was an American general best known for leading the Confederate troops in the Civil War. During and after his surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant and the Union armies, his name became synonymous with the Confederate cause and, for some, a symbol of Southern nostalgia. 

Lee opposed the dedication of Confederate names and monuments, saying they would perpetuate the Civil War and hold the country back from reconciliation, but a statue was erected in his name in Virginia in 1883. The battle flags that the general said should be buried still fly today.

Though he never visited Jacksonville and had no local connection beyond the lost cause of the Confederacy, a school serving white students in the newly-developed Avondale community was dedicated in his name in 1928. The school’s chosen colors were those of Confederate uniforms: blue and gray. Today, Lee High School’s logo depicts a general on a horse holding a sword. Past the plight of the Civil Rights movement and Duval County schools’ delayed desegregation, the marquee still reads Robert E. Lee High School nearly a full century later.

Earlier this year, the Duval County School Board released a list of schools that were up for renaming: Lee High School stands among them at the forefront.

The school’s meetings on the name change were packed and charged on both sides. Activists rose to the occasion, using their 90-second time slot to argue the name was selected in the spirit of white supremacy and must be changed in order to move forward. 

A video compilation of the other side went viral on Twitter last month. One clip shows a man saying that Jesus himself was never against slavery, citing a verse of the New Testament which refers to slaves obeying their “earthly masters” (Ephesians 6:5.). Another man asks: “If this high school is having problems, how long has it been predominantly African-American?”

The speaker in the second clip, like many of those who spoke in opposition to the renaming, was of a distinct demographic: white baby boomers who would proudly say at the top of their statements that they were Lee High School alumni of the 1960s, when the school was still segregated and the marquee made sense. 

The integration of schools and communities shifted the population over the years, and the once all-white school now serves a student base that’s more than 70% Black. 

The problems in question have more to do with challenging the name than with academics or discipline. Lee High’s school grade was a “B” for the 2018–2019 school year, according to the Florida Department of Education. The school also runs two successful magnet programs, while EVAC, a youth empowerment movement at the school, has gained national recognition.

“We should applaud these students for succeeding in spite of being in a place where they might not feel welcome or represented,” said Kimberly Allen, president of the board of 904WARD. The organization aims to create racial healing and equity through dialogue and taking action to build a more inclusive Jacksonville. 

Allen believes students’ self-image and worth is as important as academics. “If changing the name provides an additional level of comfort,” she said, “it’s the first step to making sure these students feel that they are a part of the community.”

Though there’s something to be said about judging historical figures by modern terms of morality, it's also worth noting the circumstances under which Robert E. Lee high school got its name. 

The Museum of Southern History is in Avondale not far from Lee High School. Its library is home to hundreds of volumes on the Civil War era. It is run by the Sons of the Confederacy, an organization dedicated to preserving Confederate history, and its membership is composed of descendants of Southern Civil War veterans. 

Frank Kello is a member and volunteer at the museum. He believes the movement to eradicate Confederate names and monuments comes from a lack of understanding of the actual history behind the figures, the plaques don’t say anything racist and their existence doesn’t imply bigotry.

Kello recounts stories he’s read on Robert E. Lee, how the general never spoke a bad word about the enemy, how he nursed a sick slave back to health during the Mexican-American war, how he once danced with a neglected lady at a party, and the time he gave a Union soldier money to get home after the war. Even Lincoln and Grant, who fought against Lee in the war, had great respect for him, Kello said. 

“He was a man of great honor and character like hardly anyone I’ve read about. It’s unfortunate that people want to change the name of the high school. He fought for the South, and that’s as far as some people want to go with it,” said Kello.

Abraham Lincoln offered Lee command of the Union armies in April 1861, but after Virginia’s secession shortly after that, Lee decided he could not raise his sword against his native state and resigned from his post in the U.S. Army. He gained command of Virginia's forces and became a general for the Confederate State Army shortly thereafter. 

“He didn’t fight for slavery. He fought because people were attacking his state. If Virginia had gone with the North, he would have fought for the North, then we wouldn't have problems with all these name changes,” Kelso said. “But because he fought for the South it’s ‘Oh, he must love slavery. He must believe in slavery. So we're gonna have to change the names.’”

While Lee’s character might have been upstanding at the time, the South’s reasons for deifying him along with other figures of the Confederacy has been under question for some time. Lee is quoted as saying that slavery was evil, but in the very same breath, he said it was necessary to the instruction of Black people as a race. 

Lee inherited more than 200 slaves from his father and only freed them after five years as designated in his father’s will. While he is quoted as saying that slavery “is a moral and political evil,” in the very same breath he said that it was the will of God, necessary for Black people’s instruction as a race. This sentiment is covered in white supremacy, and the reason for naming a whites-only school after him in 1928 might have more to do with that than his noble reputation. It wasn’t to venerate a great man. Rather, it was to mark Lee as a white school and make sure it remained that way.

“The time period in which Lee [High School] received its name was during the Jim Crow era in response to the uprising of Black people in an area,” said Allen. “Slavery was over, but these names and these monuments were put in place to send a message to that group in the name of oppression while they were segregating these people.”

The erasure of history was a huge point of concern among those who spoke in favor of keeping the name at the school’s meetings. Some said raising the question was divisive in itself, that more monuments can be created to honor Black people without taking down a piece of Jacksonville’s white history. At the final meeting, one woman said, “If you’re gonna change the name of the white schools, change the Black schools too.”

History has a different meaning for many Black Americans, who hold the ancestral pain of systemic torture and discrimination, and are subjected to institutionalized racism to this day. For centuries they were silenced at the least and lynched at the worst. The education system in itself has favored white heroes in its textbooks, leaving little room for the people of color who left their own marks on history.

Robert E. Lee was a slave owner and fought for the continuation of slavery at the heart of the Confederate cause. Though he was considered a man of great morals and character, he and his family made their fortune by the forced labor of Black people.

“When you put someone’s name on a building, it’s celebratory,” Allen said. “We have to ask ourselves: why are we celebrating a man who has done such grotesque things in history—this history can live in books and museums, but why celebrate his name in perpetuity?”

As a white school, Lee High School was built with bountiful resources to educate young minds, while Black schools in the area—and across the segregated nation—were built with poor infrastructure and leftovers from white schools.

Jacksonville’s Black community wasn’t asked about the name before or after the days of segregation. When Nathan B. Forrest High School went through a renaming process in 2013, it was the first time in the city’s history that the opinions of Black residents were taken into consideration in the names of their children’s schools. 

Nathan B. Forrest High School was eventually renamed Westside High School, but other Confederate school names, like Lee, remained. 

“It wasn’t a denial of the idea of white supremacy. It was more of a concession,” said Wells Todd, a member of Take Em Down Jax, an organization dedicated to the removal of all symbols of white supremacy in the city. “The schools after which these people are named were so named because they were revered for being slavers and racists.”

To Kello, the school names and the monuments are neutral but so were both sides of the Civil War. 

“It was about unfair taxation. The representation was unfair. At some point, the North said, ‘You can keep your slaves, just stop this terrible war,’ and they didn’t stop because to them it wasn’t about slavery,” he said. “My great grandfathers, both of them, fought for the South. They didn't own slaves. So if it was about slavery, and they didn’t own slaves, why would they go fight for someone else’s stuff?”

Indeed, figures range from 2–6% of people in “slave states” being slave owners. This only factors in the slave owners themselves, though. When their families are factored in, the number goes up to 30%.

The question of when does it stop is also a point of concern. If Confederate references are eradicated because they’re considered racist, then, by principle, memorials of George Washington—and other historical figures who owned slaves—should come down too. Andrew Jackson, Jacksonville’s namesake, has his own checkered past having passed the  Indian Removal Act of 1830 while president. The law drove Native Americans out of their homeland with thousands dying in the process.

Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition says the arguments against removing Confederate references don’t hold water, to stop playing games and change the name.

“It was a subtle message,” he said of the initial naming of Lee High School. “These Confederate names and symbols speak their own language. It's never a matter of marble or metal or brass or stone or a name on a marquee; it's about what those things represent. And we know that when we see those Confederate monuments, names and symbols it is a sign that tells Black people and people of color that they are not welcomed. These names speak to the enslavement of a people. They speak to the oppression of a people. They speak to the terrorization of people. These are cold-blooded signs that are designed to traumatize Black people and other people of color.”

As it stands now, individuals with a vested interest in the name change, including students, staff, PTA parents, alumni and anyone who resides in the school’s zoning area, can vote for their name of choice: Riverside High School, Avondale High School, Legacy High School, School #33, and Robert E. Lee High School. Voting takes place April 26–30 and May 3–7 from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Individuals must show ID as proof of their eligibility to vote. 

The results will inform the school board superintendent’s recommendation to the School Board, which will make the final decision at their board meeting in June. 

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