Can “Lee High” end Tyler’s long fight over Robert E. Lee High School?

According to several black Tylerites, and the example of other districts in Texas, a name that remains linked to Robert E. Lee is unlikely to end this debate.

Larry Johnson, right, and his son Braylon, a rising sophomore at Robert E. Lee High School, at a recent student meeting about the school's name. Photography by Jamie Maldonado

Tonight, Tyler’s public school board members will wrestle with the latest gambit in the debate over Robert E. Lee High School. In a startling reversal, board member Wade Washmon, who has firmly opposed a new name for the school since the issue was broached last fall, now wants to rechristen it as “Lee High School,” dropping the first and middle names of the Confederate Army’s top general.

Washmon’s idea doesn’t have widespread support on either side. Proponents of a new name say “Lee High” still associates the school with white supremacy and resistance to desegregation. Opponents of any change say the proposal goes too far, jettisoning generations of high school traditions and giving in to what they see as outside agitation. Others point out that Washmon’s proposal defies the board’s own policy for school names, which says school names have to honor a significant person or place. If “Lee High” doesn’t glorify Robert E. Lee, who—or what—does it stand for?

An increasingly beleaguered school board struggles to make sense of such questions. Last week, a diverse group of nearly 70 students and grown-ups gathered outside a recent private board session, wearing t-shirts that read “Better School, Better Name, Better Tyler.” They handed out postcards encouraging the board’s seven members to change the school’s name. Once the board was seated behind closed doors, the stress of the last ten months of debate on this issue showed on more than one face. “There were tears,” one board member told The Loop. “The board is somewhat fractured now. The camaraderie is kind of lost, and that just gets to some people.”

As the twists and turns of this saga continue, it is unclear whether the board will vote tonight or opt for more delay, and whether Tyler will join a growing number of Texas districts that have moved away from honoring Confederate heroes. In the three years since a self-described white supremacist massacred nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, seven school districts in Texas and ten more across the country have renamed schools that honored Robert E. Lee. According to a Tyler Loop analysis, Tyler’s school is now the largest of 14 schools in Texas and 54 nationwide that still bear the general’s full name.

It also remains to be seen whether a seeming compromise like Washmon’s would truly end this local debate—which stretches back 50 years—once and for all. According to several black Tylerites, and the example of other school districts in Texas, a name that remains linked to Robert E. Lee in any way is unlikely to do so.

Students and adults in favor of a new name for Robert E. Lee High School met Saturday night to discuss the “Lee High” proposal. Photography by Jamie Maldonado

The story doesn’t always end when “Lee” stays in a school’s name

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a public school board recently backtracked on a vote to shorten its Robert E. Lee Elementary to “Lee Elementary” after some board members and community members said the change didn’t go far enough. Last Wednesday, that school’s principal sent parents a letter saying the Tulsa board planned to vote this week on a proposal to “convene a larger committee representative of the school community to meet during the summer months and develop a new name nomination.”

Frustrations also lingered after the Amarillo school board voted in January to rename an elementary school “Lee Elementary.” Several board members voted against the name, saying it didn’t go far enough, and black community leaders complained that naming the school Lee maintained the status quo. David Rausch, a political science professor at West Texas A&M University in Amarillo, told The Loop that public discussion about the town’s Confederate symbols is “almost like a once-every-10-year event. It percolates up and then there’s a hot discussion and it dies down again.”

And after a San Antonio-area school board voted in the fall to rename a high school “Legacy of Educational Excellence High School”—more popularly known as L.E.E. High, the resolution left an emotional hangover.

“It was incredibly unsatisfying to vote to change the name and not change,” says Sandi Wolff, a former member of San Antonio’s North East Independent School District board. “If you’re going to change the name, frickin’ change the name.”

On the heels of the June 2015 Charleston church massacre, Wolff and NEISD board members initially rejected a renaming proposal. Wolff, who is white, says she changed her mind last August, after the deadly white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, when students in her district came to her with a more detailed plan for change. The students’ proposal included fundraising to help cover the cost and a plan for museum space to ensure that old plaques, trophies, and other memorabilia from the school’s past were given a place of honor.

“This is how we want our students to act,” Wolff told The Loop. “We want them to be engaged and motivated and thoughtful and concerned about the environment in which they go to school.”

Wolff introduced the idea at a special board meeting later that month. It passed unanimously. But she gave up her board seat soon after the vote because her family was planning to leave the district. She was powerless to do anything when school officials later opted not to follow the students’ renaming plan and instead called for ideas for a new name through an online survey. The district was swamped with 2,443 suggestions—including some as silly as “Schooly McSchoolface,” and others that included racial slurs and profanity like “Go F—Yourself Liberals High.” Last October, the North East board voted 5-2 for L.E.E., a submission that several members said would allow the school to keep its brand and minimize the cost of change.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Lecia Brooks, who has overseen a national project cataloguing schools and other public structures, statues, and memorials honoring Confederacy, says abbreviating a name like Robert E. Lee doesn’t remove the tie to a polarizing figure and a painful part of Southern history.

“Though we appreciate the intent that people want to address the concerns and think they found a great way to reach middle ground, there is no middle ground on it,” says Brooks. “Lee High School is essentially Robert E. Lee High School. Students will know that when they research the history of the school’s name.” Brooks also noted that Texas has “taken the lead” in retiring polarizing Confederate symbols from public education, with communities as big as Houston, Austin, and Dallas and as small as Denton and Marshall renaming schools.

Wolff, the former San Antonio-area school board member, says the L.E.E. compromise left no one happy on either side. “I think that was more offensive to alums than an outright change,” says Wolff, whose husband is a Republican Bexar County commissioner. Though the community as a whole was evenly split, she says, “the noise that we heard the loudest was from alumni—very conservative, and dare I say Republican, alumni, mostly from the ‘70s and ‘80s.”

Here in Tyler, Baby Boomer alums—many who attended Robert E. Lee during the tumultuous years after desegregation and who endured the court-ordered loss of the school’s Rebel Flag symbol, its Dixie fight song, and its Confederate soldier mascot—have been among the most vocal opponents of a new name for their alma mater.

Some of those alumni, including parents of current or recent Lee students, have spearheaded a recent effort to organize opposition to any name change. One of the group’s leaders, parent Angela Utz Smallwood of Flint, says any new name—including “Lee High”—would rob her family of important personal histories. Smallwood, who is white, adds that her children have never heard complaints about the school’s name, and she and others in her group believe that an outside group is funding the renaming effort.

“They’re a branch-off of antifa; they’re funneling money from outside,” says Smallwood, referring to activists believed by some to be instigating violence between white supremacist groups and people of color. “This is not just about the name of the school.”

Smallwood also says she is also suspicious of the renaming effort because, in her view, the people involved are “mainly white.” She says that her group includes “a fine black member,” adding, “my black friends from John Tyler have contacted me and said they don’t want this.”   

Some black Tylerites find “Lee High” proposal “insulting”

Taniyah Jones and Brandon Collins speak in favor a new name for their high school at a recent student meeting on the issue. Photography by Jamie Maldonado

Parents and students involved in the pro-change effort say they’re not getting money or marching orders from anyone. Several black Tylerites say they’ve heard many in North Tyler call for the school’s name needs to be completely changed. “It needs to be a clean cut, so we can put this behind us as a city,” says Ann Beasley, a retired educator who taught in Tyler’s James S. Hogg Middle School for 25 years. Beasley says her husband was among black Tylerites who fought long and hard to guarantee minority representation on the school board. “If you call it Lee High, you have not removed the stigma,” she says.

Cedrick Granberry, president of the Tyler/Smith County N.A.A.C.P. branch and organizer of last month’s closed-door meeting between black leaders and the two black school board members, said approving “Lee High” would guarantee the issue wouldn’t be put to rest for another 50 years. “We’re a community that’s past being bamboozled,” he says. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of our community leaders that I’ve talked to are almost insulted” by Washmon’s proposal.

Pastor Darryl Bowdre, a former city councilman and school board member, says Washmon’s proposal “reflects the racism in Tyler. To propose this here and now, it’s doubling down to show us who’s still boss.” Bowdre echoed the notion that “Lee High” is insulting to black and Hispanic community leaders who’ve called for meaningful change. “That shows what Wade Washmon and people like him think of us.”

Bowdre and others say white Tylerites should not mistake resignation and mistrust among Tyler’s minority communities with indifference. Bettye McDonald Mitchell, a 1974 Lee graduate who works on aging issues, noted that black residents may be upset but nonetheless decline to speak out or push publicly for change because of what she termed “learned helplessness,” the idea that “no matter what we do and what we say, our voice does not count.” After a federal court forced integration in 1970, black Tyler residents repeatedly asked the white-dominated school board to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School, and got nowhere. Mitchell’s late father, The Rev. W.A.I. McDonald, the longtime pastor of St. Louis Baptist Church, was among leading North Tyler activists who pushed for integration and racial equality during the Civil Rights era. 

Mitchell and other black Tylerites who have publicly joined the renaming effort say they feel they’re aren’t being heard by Orenthia Mason and Jean Washington, the school board’s two black representatives. Several say Mason’s shifting stance on renaming was particularly disappointing because they felt similarly let down by her vocal support of lifting the school district’s decades-long federal desegregation order, a move some interpreted as a way to make white Tylerites feel good at the potential expense of black students’ access to an equal education. The order, and decades of federal court supervision over Tyler public schools, ended in late August 2016. “There are still hard feelings,” Mitchell says. She says she hears about it in black community meetings and gatherings. “People are constantly bringing up the order and how it was done.”

Neither Mason or Washington agreed to an interview for this story, but in a news conference earlier this month, Mason explained why she came to reject her initial support of a new name for the school. After hearing from about 20 recent and older alums, she announced that she couldn’t inflict change on the school’s graduates. “Why should I do the same thing to Robert E. Lee High School and John Tyler High School that was done to us at Emmett J. Scott?”, she said, referring to her own alma mater, the beloved black high school that Tyler’s then-school board decided to close when the district was forced to desegregate.

Over the weekend, Washington issued a statement in which she expressed concern over potential costs of renaming, questioned whether the renaming push would really end with Lee, and noted that her son, a ‘90s Lee grad, enjoyed his time there. She also pushed back on students’ concerns that the school’s name enables a racist environment on campus. “How a student is treated relies heavily on how they treat others,” she wrote. “The name doesn’t make the school, the students make the school. A name cannot affect the school atmosphere; that is set by those who walk the halls every day.” Nonetheless, she said changing the name to just “Lee” would be “suitable,” because many people already abbreviate the school’s name that way. (You can read Washington’s full statement here.)

Beasley, Mitchell, and others in Tyler’s black community say they fear the board’s two black members may be willing to sacrifice their community’s interests to appease white board colleagues and power brokers. “I hold strong convictions, and I’ll vote them even if I’m the only one in the room,” says Beasley, who considers Washington a close friend. “I thought they were the same way. They let me down.”

Despite feeling unheard by the board’s black representatives, Beasley and other black Tylerites who are in favor of a new name for Robert E. Lee High School say they’re glad the current debate is drawing attention to a neglected part of Tyler history and to the experiences of black students on campus. Larry Johnson says that’s exactly why he and his wife Crystal decided to take their daughter Ryleigh and their son Braylon to the student meeting at The Foundry on Saturday night instead of going to the movies. The couple, both black, heard about the meeting at the last minute and arrived late to join about 30 others—mostly students, about half of them white and half black—in the downtown coffee shop to plan for tonight’s board meeting.

Johnson moved to Tyler from Mount Pleasant, 70 miles north of Tyler, 25 years ago. He told the students at The Foundry that when he was in high school in Mount Pleasant in the ‘90s, he and his football and basketball teammates relished games against Tyler’s Robert E. Lee High School because of that school’s name.

“When people hear that, it’s just demeaning right off the bat,” Johnson says. “It speaks Confederacy, it speaks racism, it speaks hatred.” Before games, he and his teammates used their dislike of the opposing school’s name as a way to get pumped up. “We couldn’t wait to beat these guys,” he said with a wry laugh.

Johnson says his son Braylon, a rising sophomore at Robert E. Lee, plans to make a statement at tonight’s board meeting about what a new name would mean to him. Braylon has had to endure racial slurs from white students, including being called “a monkey,” Johnson says, and he believes the school’s name has an influence on such behavior. That’s why the family decided to postpone seeing the Incredibles II and drove downtown to discuss the renaming effort instead. “There’s something in a name that shapes you,” said Johnson.

Crystal Johnson looks on as her son, Braylon, and husband, Larry, describe Braylon’s campus experiences with racism at Robert E. Lee High School. Photography by Jamie Maldonado