Portraits of change: Why these protesters say the name Robert E. Lee High School must go

On a balmy Monday evening, protesters gathered at Tyler ISD's Plyler Instructional Complex with signs, bullhorns and their voices. Here are their messages to the school board and their community. Photos by Yasmeen Khalifa.

Jhayla Mumphrey

“I’ve had my fair share of instances with both students and faculty during my time there. You know how students can be: getting called the n-word, people feeling comfortable using the n-word. It is a thing. It’s very real.

I have two younger sisters who go to Lee right now. I want this change to be in place for them, so that by the time they graduate in 2022 and 2024, they can say that their school made a change.

If they don’t change the name, it signifies to me that this school, this town and this school district could care less about Black people, about minorities. We all know that some people will never understand. But that shows to me that y’all don’t care to understand. Like, try. Try to understand.

If they do change it, I will be very proud, ecstatic. What will come next? Training with faculty. There should be racial training everywhere, training for students put in place. And if they do change the name, withdraw the name John Tyler, too. There’s always something to be done.

It’s disheartening for a school that takes so much pride in its diversity. But y’all can’t use that if y’all aren’t applying the necessary measures to make sure everyone is being treated fairly. So don’t promote diversity if y’all aren’t helping out the diverse students there. Don’t use us to meet a quota.”

Abrielle Jackson

“[Two years ago], I thought they’d end it right there. When they didn’t, I was distraught, actually. The time to change the name is overdue. It’s an insult to me. If he had won the war, my ancestors might still be enslaved for generations.” 

Remona Stanford

“In the fall, my daughter will be attending Robert E. Lee High School and I’m just not comfortable with her attending school there, especially bearing the name of this Confederate general that cared absolutely nothing about Blacks. I don’t want my child to work four years for her diploma and to look at it and see Robert E. Lee’s name there, somebody that didn’t care anything about her success.

I wish the board members would really, really consider how children of color  feel about this name change. I’ve read articles where former students, back in the 70s, wore Klan outfits, and it was okay. Their cheerleaders had ‘lynch the lions.’ The time is now. It’s been past time, but we’ve got to do something now.

I could not just sit at home and not let my voice be heard, how I feel about Robert E. Lee. There’s got to be a name for this high school that will not exclude anyone. It bothers me that the school board continues to ignore the cries of its citizens. We’re reminded every time we look at that school that you were never meant to be there. But it will never be said that my voice wasn’t heard and I didn’t try.”

Dakota Bonner

“We’re overdue for a change. [The name Robert E. Lee] makes me feel less…that name held so much power, and it feels like he still has control over me. It’s degrading. He represented the lowest point in our race. He wanted us as slaves. I’m here to represent things from my side.” 

Erik Archilla

Photo courtesy Erik Archilla.

“People have complained that only outsiders are pushing for Tyler ISD to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School. They claim that Tyler has no racism. While that is untrue and the majority of people gathered to protest were parents and students from Tyler, let me remind everyone of a few things:

Tyler didn’t end slavery; the Union Army forced them to do it. Tyler didn’t end the Black Codes; the Constitution forced them to do it. Tyler didn’t prosecute lynchings; a military governor forced them to do it. Tyler didn’t end Jim Crow laws; Congress forced them to do it. Tyler didn’t desegregate their schools; the Supreme Court forced them to do it. Tyler didn’t remove the Confederate flag from the High School; a judge forced them to do it.

So when you say that the community has risen above racism — that the community should decide whether or not to keep the name of a man who, if he had won, no black students would be at the school — pardon me if I don’t quite trust your ability to do the right thing.”

Kathryn Wright

“I came out tonight because I was a Robert E. Lee graduate in 2019. When I look back at my time, I can really see how we have done a disservice to the students of color in our community.

I was an AP/dual credit student, and that fact that we were a minority high school with majority white AP/dual credit classes just made no sense to me. Why would you be proud or want to succeed in a place that tells you you’re constantly not as good as everyone else? It’s really heartbreaking to think that people don’t feel valued. I have friends who have experienced racism in Lee, white kids calling them the n-word for expressing their beliefs.

As an adult, I should help represent the kids still at Lee, whether that’s me standing out here or going in speaking or showing up to vote — it’s my job to say something, and say it loudly so they know someone cares about them.”

Michael McDormit

“I’m here to be supportive of a worthy cause. Lee fought against our flag, against our Constitution. This nation was divided. We cannot make a right from a wrong. We live in the Bible Belt, so I’m here to remind everyone, with my scripture on my sign, to live the words they profess.” 

Crystol Henry

“There is a heritage attached to it, and people can say it’s pride all day and that there’s a heritage and pride that doesn’t have racist undertones to it — but that would be a lie. The main message I want to get across is that you can’t have the preservation of history when you don’t acknowledge both sides of that history. Your pride of that history comes at the expense of my pain and you have to acknowledge that. At some point, people stop acknowledging things that make them uncomfortable and it doesn’t make it less true.

The whole meaning behind the confederate statues and memorial names was retaliation for ending segregation. It wasn’t just because we wanted to honor this man who did these great things. It was a spit in the face of desegregation coming down.

It’s kind of laughable to me that we’re still debating on something that was debated 50 years ago for the same reasons. Tyler needs to get it together.”

April (last name withheld)

“I’ve watched my students quietly take racism, and it breaks my heart because they’re doing it ’cause they’re used to it or because they’ve been silenced before. I just want students to know there are more allies willing to learn than you think.”

Amanda Nail

“In education we are trained to look for measurable outcomes, outward demonstrations of internal knowledge and understanding. To change the names of our schools is a measurable outcome; it directly demonstrates what our board and community know or don’t know to be true. In that light, the name change is a pass or fail test. Has the board listened? Have they received ample opportunities to interact with the material in meaningful ways? Do they posses the knowledge and skills necessary to move onto the next level? Let’s hope so. 

The board cannot stand silent as a hanging tree pretending to be impartial. We know they personally did not cause the pain our Black community feels or name the school themselves, but they sit in a position of power and influence to change the legacy of our schools, cast a new vision for our community and begin a new history for the city of Tyler. Who wouldn’t you want to be remembered for things like that?”

Theresa Scott

“It’s an ongoing problem, systematic racism. I’ve seen it from the time I was growing up as a teenager: being pulled over by the cops for no reason at all, getting my car searched, being harassed at the hospital in the emergency room by cops and even being followed around the city by policemen — that’s a part of police brutality. All putting fear into the Black people here, into the community. And that’s how we become oppressed, is by fear.

My son experienced something this year. A white man gave his daughter a bullet to give to my son. This was December 24, 2019. My son is an A student. He had done nothing wrong. They were just friends. To be treated the way we’ve been treated, it’s been awful. When it was reported to the school, nobody did anything about it. We were afraid to come forward at first. But then we came forward when we found the courage because of the protesting.”

Haley Fancher

“I went to Lee. During football games, I saw people drag the John Tyler mascot around on a noose — the mascot of a historically Black school. That spoke volumes. I’m embarrassed to tell people I went to a high school named Robert E. Lee. It’s a point of shame for me.”

Terry Bonner

“We have about a 7% college readiness rate. That means being ready to go into college without having to take remedial classes. Put that in perspective, for every 400 graduates, there are about 26 ready for college in this town. That Is repulsive. It’s a reflection of our 70% disadvantage rate and our 65% at risk of dropping out rate. And a reflection of our living conditions. And I must say, because the name Robert E. Lee entails it: systematic racism.

The death of George Floyd touched us all across this nation. The city of Tyler, this area, has a knee on the neck of Black life — every Black student, every Black administrator, staff, teacher that works at Robert E. Lee, graduated from Lee or stays in the city of Tyler. These confederate symbols  are a synonym for that. We really can’t breathe around here, okay?

This is not going to stop. Tyler’s going to change in my lifetime! We stand as one to get rid of this name. We’re not asking, we’re telling.”

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.
Claire Wallace, a Loop 2019 summer intern, is a senior in the Mass Communication department at The University of Texas at Tyler; she graduates in December 2019. She attends the university as part of the Honors Program. Wallace is Editor-in-Chief of Patriot Student Media Products, which houses The Patriot, U.T. Tyler's student-run newspaper, as well as other broadcast and multimedia avenues. Wallace has lead the recent revitalization of The Patriot and built it to be a digital-first platform by creating a new website, using social media news-reporting, and adding new aspects such as podcasts. Wallace works at the university as a lab technician in the Mass Communication department and is the social media advisor for the Communications Club. Wallace hopes to one day work as an investigative journalist. She believes to be a journalist, it is important to be curious, passionate, and dedicated, and that journalism is an integral aspect of creating change and informing the public. Wallace looks forward to expanding her abilities with The Tyler Loop.