Lessons learned: how Robert E. Lee students who pushed for change are making sense of it all

Some adults said the fight over Robert E. Lee High School's name would distract students. But for one diverse student group that wanted change, the past year has been a unique—and lasting—lesson in civic engagement.

Robert E. Lee High School students Caroline Crawford, Honor Neal, and Cameron Hamlin at a student meeting held earlier this year to discuss their school's name. Photography by Jamie Maldonado

Robert E. Lee High School students Taniyah Jones and Honor Neal took their usual front-row seats at Monday night’s meeting of the Tyler public school board. Though board members refused to vote earlier this month on whether or not to rename their school, Jones, Neal and several other Lee students say they’ll keep pushing for change. They say that means continuing to show up for monthly board meetings—long and often dry evening sessions they’d never set foot in before this summer.

“I’ll be bringing my homework,” says Neal, a white Lee sophomore who arrived early and immediately dove into a thick pre-calculus assignment. It was the first day of the new school year. “We just want to let them know that we’re still here,” says Jones, a black senior at the South Tyler school. “I think a lot of people were thinking, ‘Oh, they’re going to let it go.’ But it’s not over.”

Calls to rename the high school began last August, after a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, intensified a national debate over whether publicly funded spaces and institutions should honor those who fought for the Confederacy and slavery. Over the past year, seven Texas school districts and ten more in other states have renamed schools that honored Robert E. Lee.

Here in Tyler, debate swirled on social media immediately after Charlottesville, and petitions sprang up on both sides of the issue. A majority of the seven-member school board initially appeared open to renaming the school. But board member Wade Washmon, who was opposed to change, said the issue would distract the district’s 18,000 students during the school year. The board opted to table the issue until the summer break.

In May, board members Andy Bergfeld and Orenthia Mason abruptly announced in a joint press conference that they opposed any further discussion of renaming. Many Tylerites were stunned at the turn of events, since both had initially voiced support for change. Some board members have told The Tyler Loop that local power brokers applied pressure behind the scenes in the months following Washmon’s push for delay.

After Bergfeld and Mason’s sudden reversal, several dozen current Robert E. Lee High School students and recent graduates in favor of a name change, including Jones and Neal, began meeting and organizing. In late May, more than a dozen made impassioned pleas at a packed board meeting, saying their school’s name emboldened a culture of racism on their campus.

As summer unfolded, the students held strategy meetings and filled front row seats at board meetings where audiences of hundreds began to resemble groups of rival fans at sporting events, complete with competing colors and slogans. In June, the students helped organize a demonstration at the school administration building. As board members arrived for their monthly workshop, they were greeted by more than 80 students and parents who prayed together, wrote postcards advocating for a name change, and dispensed free hot dogs from a food cart. At times, the students appeared more savvy than their adult counterparts. After board members complained about the onslaught of calls and emails and public comments, the student group appointed a spokesman to speak at board meetings.

The group includes students who describe themselves as conservatives as well as liberals, and Republicans and libertarians as well as Democrats. In working together, the members say, they’ve seen how people from different backgrounds and political persuasions can find common ground. They talk about the importance and the difficulty of persuading opponents to hear them out, and convincing their classmates to care and support their cause. “You can’t necessarily change a person’s heart, no matter how right or wrong you are,” says Jones, the Lee senior. “It’s not as easy as they make it seem in movies and books.”

The students say they’ve also learned about Tyler’s history and culture, and its frequent resistance to change, particularly along the racial divides that many in Tyler seem to want to avoid discussing. “I’m a white girl, so I’ve sometimes had the privilege to ignore this stuff. Because of where I live, I’ve been able to turn a blind eye to it,” says Cameron Hamlin, a white senior. “We’ve had to face the ugliness and hatred head on.” 

Taniyah Jones and Brandon Collins spoke in favor a new name for their high school at a student meeting on the issue.

Twelve months of delay, debate, organizing, and dueling social media posts came to a head on August 6th, when the Tyler school board held a special meeting to consider a formal renaming proposal. Board member Aaron Martinez’s motion to rename the school died without a vote. After pained and even angry speeches about being pressured and pushed too far, five of his fellow board members declined to second Martinez’s motion. Board president Fritz Hager, a vocal proponent of change, noted that previous board presidents had always refrained from seconding motions. After the meeting, Hager said he had decided to honor that practice “despite my personal feelings on the issue.” With the board’s inaction, the Tyler high school remains the largest of 14 schools in Texas and 54 nationwide still bearing the Confederate general’s full name.

“That whole meeting was a waste of both our time and their time,” says sophomore Neal. “It seems like it was just a way to silence us and say that our voices and our opinions don’t matter, which is why I’m going to all the board meetings now.”

Jones, Neal, and the other students have continued brainstorming about how to keep the issue alive. They’ve discussed offering free pizza in the school administration parking lot in hopes of getting other students to join them at board meetings. At a recent gathering, one student proposed printing cards with bullet points outlining how the school was named in the 1950s as white leaders in Tyler and across the South fought court-ordered desegregation of public schools. During Black History Month at their school, they’d like to increase awareness of Tyler’s own history on race, desegregation and civil rights. And they’re considering working to support candidates committed to a name change in next May’s school board elections. “We’re not gonna go quietly. We’re respectful, but we’re still going to be there,” says senior Hamlin. “You can’t just stick a rosebush on top of it and pretend like it didn’t happen.”

Several of the students are still talking about a phrase that board member Bergfeld and others have invoked over the past year, saying calls for change have not played out in accordance with “the Tyler way.” Says sophomore Neal, “The real ‘Tyler way,’ from what I’ve seen so far, is sweeping it under the rug.” 

Caroline Crawford, a white Lee senior, says she and some classmates invited Bergfeld to meet with their group. “He said he just wanted to wait until the controversy died down,” says Crawford. “I said actually, no, I want to talk about it while it’s still heated.” So far, they haven’t met with Bergfeld.

In the meantime, members of the group are still coming to terms with their summer of grassroots organizing. Some were surprised by how quickly the renaming debate turned personal and negative, and how willing some adults were to target and disparage students in public and on social media. Students in the group were accused of being paid actors, and of parroting speeches written for them by adults. Those comments were particularly galling, says Hamlin, because she spent hours writing and polishing the statement she made at one board meeting.

Lee student Brandon Collins at a student meeting about the name of Robert E. Lee High School earlier this year

After the board held its special meeting and refused to vote on renaming, Taniyah Jones says she was shaken by a confrontation at the ice cream shop where she works. “This man came in with a child, and when he saw me, he got really angry. He was saying, ‘You’re that girl who’s trying to change the name. Well, it’s not changing!’ And I’m just like, ‘This is not the time or place. What kind of ice cream do you want?’ I’m seventeen years old, and you’re attacking me in public.'”

The students say they were also disappointed by the behavior of some adults who supported renaming the school, including those involved with a pro-change Facebook page that questioned the motives of individual board members. At one point, an adult in charge of that page drew attention to pictures shared by school board member Patricia Nation of her wedding, which featured her husband in a Confederate cavalry uniform. In late July, the students sent statements to local media to distance themselves from such actions. “We wanted to say, ‘That wasn’t us,'” says Neal.

Overall, the students say they’re trying to be realistic about how long they may have to fight, given what they’ve learned this year about Tyler’s racial history and the ways in which this latest fight over their school’s name echoes one mounted by black Tyler students and parents 50 years agoIn a meeting attended by hundreds in 1972, that school board’s lone black member and several black parents said it was painful for black students to attend a school immersed in Confederate symbolism and named for a Confederate general. White board members castigated black students and community leaders as ungrateful and undeserving of change. One white member accused the students of being demanding and arrogant, and said they needed to behave more like “ladies and gentlemen.” Then, as now, several board members warned that the city’s majority population was being pushed too fast and too far.

That board ultimately voted to retire the school’s former Confederate mascot and flag, its “Dixie” fight song, and other symbols, under pressure from a federal judge assigned to monitor Tyler’s desegregation efforts. But it kept the name Robert E. Lee High School, and the judge opted not to push that issue. The issue saw no further public debate for nearly 50 years—until last August.

“Until our generation, the generation that’s more open and accepting, grows up and is able to take responsibility for this community and try to turn it around and teach our children the right things,” says Lee senior Taniyah Jones, “I feel like not much is going to change in Tyler. There’s too many stubborn older folks here.”

She’s been especially disappointed in board member Mason, who made fiery pronouncements about her experience of racism in Tyler at previous board meetings, but later complained about facing intense pressure from her constituents and refused to move ahead with a vote on the issue. Jones says she continues to look up to Mason “as my elder, but I’ve lost respect for her.”

After graduating next spring, Jones plans to enlist the Air Force and attend law school. Then, she wants to return to Tyler and become an advocate for her community. “I’ll be in this community probably for the rest of my life,” she says. “So I have a good chance of making a difference.”

“Everybody keeps saying pick your battles, and I’m glad that we did pick this one,” she adds. “This is a battle that I think needed to be fought right now. At least in the future if we do start teaching about the history of Tyler, we’ll be in it.  And we’ll be on the right side of it when that name eventually changes—in five, ten, fifteen, twenty, even forty five years. However much time it takes.”

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