Transcript: School board president Fritz Hager’s remarks on the Robert E. Lee name change debate

Last night, members of the Tyler school board once again listened to community input on whether or not the board should move to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School, a question that’s been widely raised in Tyler in the wake of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Our timeline delves into the 130-year history of segregated schools in Tyler and how Lee High got its name in the first place. We’ve also looked at the history of attempts to change the name of this school.

After hearing public remarks, the board held an open discussion on whether the board should vote on this subject at all, how this process might work going forward, and members’ personal views on the topic. We have transcribed the remarks of board president Fritz Hager, who touched on matters of history that The Loop has been focusing on, because we feel they could be of particular interest to Loop readers. We will also be following other board members’ future remarks on this topic. To hear what every board member had to say at Monday’s meeting, check out a livestream of the event posted by the Tyler Morning Telegraph, as well as a rundown of the meeting by Telegraph reporter Cory McCoy.

TISD school board president Fritz Hager’s remarks at Monday’s school board meeting on the question of a name change at Robert E. Lee High School:

“I’ve got some thoughts I’ll share as well. Unlike you, Mr. Bergfeld [fellow board member Andy Bergfeld], I was a reluctant participant in this. I had, like you, seen this issue coming, but had hoped that somehow, some way, it would move past us or around us. And I agree with Mr. Washmon [board member Wade Washmon]: there are many more issues that are more important and that I wish drew a fraction of the community interest.

Today, despite all the improvements at Tyler ISD, we have a 28-point achievement gap between African Americans and white students. That is an issue that we’ve been working on. That is an issue that has profound implications for those students for a lifetime. And that is not a new problem in Tyler ISD. It’s an old problem many leaders have tried to address. Yet it does not draw a fraction of the interest in our community as something like this issue does. It raises the question in my mind of why we don’t have 400 people and now fifty-something public comments about that issue. In fact, I can only think of maybe one or two in the two years that I’ve been on the board that have even touched on it.

I was suspicious of the motives of some who initially raised this issue, and I was suspicious of the timing. And my knee-jerk reaction was that this was another example of political correctness run amok. It was a media-driven story. If our president was here tonight, he’d call it “fake news.”

At an emotional level, I too loved my high school. I loved my time at Robert E. Lee. And, like many of my classmates who responded emotionally to this, it is based off of the great affection that I have for that school and for the teachers and for the students and friends that I made there. I loved my school. I love the fact that one of my kids has graduated from that same school with that same name, and Lord willing, a second one will graduate this year. We can only hope.

But as I dug into the issue, and like, Mr. Bergfeld, read as much as I could read. I had the privilege of attending and learning history at the same school where Robert E. Lee learned history, and I dug up some of those old resources. And I agree with Mr. Bergfeld, as he has said, that slavery was a direct or indirect cause of the Civil War. I’d go maybe even one step further — that the state right that people were most exercised about was indeed the right to determine whether or not they would hold slaves. And the economic issue they were most concerned about was the economic system that slavery supported.

But I think there’s a difference between statues, streets, city names, and schools. And you alluded to it, Mr. Bergfeld. We compel students to attend a certain school. And not only do they attend it, if they participate in extracurricular activities, they wear that name on their chest. They identify. They’re forced to identify with that school in a way that is different than when I drive down a street or look at a statue in a park or drive through a city and see a name. I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much interest and emotion around this issue. And it’s because we — particularly those of us who’ve grown up in this community and have gone to Robert E. Lee — we identify at an emotional level with what that school means to us.

One of the stories that I read in all of this research was that of a man named Mike Williams. He was the commissioner of education before the current commissioner. He was, I believe, land commissioner of Texas or railroad commissioner — some other elected official before becoming commissioner of education. And he graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in Midland. And he’s an African-American man. He played football. And as I read his account of what it felt like to run underneath the flag onto the football field, the Confederate flag, as he stood there while the band played ‘Dixie’ and the crowd…sang, ‘I wish I were back in the land of cotton,’ I realized what we ask students to do in terms with identifying with the name of a school. And [board member Orenthia Mason] Reverend Mason, you alluded to that as well on the opposing side of the field — what we ask students to endure or ask them to identify with.

And so that’s when I began to think back to not my history classes but my seminary classes. So, in seminary, we have this class called hermeneutics, which is a very fancy word for — you need lots of fancy words in seminary — it’s a fancy word to describe how you know what things mean. And specifically in the context of seminary, how do you know what something means when it was written in another language, in another time, to another culture, to a world that we really struggle to understand? And the fundamental principle there that applied there and I think applies here — and again, Mr. Bergfeld, you alluded to it — is that context determines meaning.

And so, to that I would say the name Robert E. Lee meant something in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War. It meant something different in 1860 as he wrapped up his federal service. It meant something different in 1865 at the end of the Civil War. And after he spent the last years of his life encouraging reconciliation, his name meant something different in 1870. And something happened over the next few decades: Robert E. Lee became the face of the Confederacy. Not its president, Jefferson Davis, who most of us could not pick out of a lineup. We think of Robert E. Lee as the name, the face, the symbol, the leading symbol, of the Confederacy. In the same way, the flag that most of us think of as the Confederate flag was never the official flag of the Confederate states. It was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, the army that Lee commanded. So with the passage of time, the symbols and the names lost some of the detail or nuance of their original meaning, and his name came to be synonymous with the Confederacy.

Roll the clock forward into the 1950’s. In 1954, you have Brown versus Board of Education and a mandate to integrate schools, abolishing the facade of separate but equal school systems.

In Tyler, the response to that decision has been reported on thoroughly here recently in both the Tyler paper and other outlets as well. It’s not a matter of opinion. It happens to be a matter of legal record that Tyler, at seemingly every turn, resisted integration. For those who say we should not forget our history, I would say that the history of fifty years ago is more important than the history of one hundred and fifty years ago.

Like other communities in the South, there was a strong and immediate negative reaction to the prospect — and again, as Mr. Bergfeld has said, I don’t judge those folks. I don’t know how I would have responded had I lived in those times. But what I do know is that back through history, out of that ugly stew, came the decision to name this new school, one farthest from the black neighborhoods, that would be predominantly white, after a man with no real connection to our city, no personal contribution to Tyler or its schools, and one who had become known as the face of the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee, the face of resisting integration, had a new meaning in 1957.

Then later, we as a community doubled down. To make no mistake what was meant by that, we chose the Rebels as the mascot and draped the school in the Confederate battle flag. We brought in a cannon and then watched as the school was plagued with racial unrest. Until we were ordered by a court to integrate and to dismantle the separate and unequal school system that we fought so hard to maintain, and then finally were forced to remove the Confederate symbols from the school — an attempt, I believe, to take some of the Confederate-ness out of the school name. In my opinion that is the history of Robert E. Lee that is most relevant for our discussion tonight, not the nuances and complexities of a man who lived and died one hundred and fifty years ago.

When I graduated from Lee in 1985, Robert E. Lee was not identified with the man. It was the names and faces of teachers and coaches and students. It was Billy Hall, even though Billy still doesn’t remember who I am. It was Coach Pickle. It was friends. It didn’t mean a Confederate general. So I understand when people are upset about this issue, because, I think one of the reasons that you see this dividing line between folks who grew up in this community and those who did not, is, absent another meaning, absent a meaning that is filled with names and faces of people you love and respect, you’re left only with the historical meaning. And so it’s no surprise to me that people who’ve grown up in this community, who’ve gone to that school, who love that school, resist the effort. There is real loss in giving up that name. So I empathize with that and I — I feel it.

You know those Confederate symbols, even though they are still in the background when I was a student in the ‘80s, they really faded here until recently, until the groups we would not want to associate with in any way reclaimed those symbols — neo-Nazis, the white supremacists, the Klan — and brought them to us who are familiar with them, and introduced them to a new generation. Which is why the name Robert E. Lee is a risky name for a school. It’s a name that is all too easy to re-associate with the meaning associated with those symbols that we banned a long time ago.

Which is why I’m personally open to changing the name of the school I graduated from and my child, my oldest son, graduated from. You know, we have a unique opportunity with opening two essentially new schools to look to the future instead of the past, to move forward with, in some ways, very little economic impact. [TISD Superintendent Marty Crawford] Dr. Crawford, I don’t know if you care to weigh into this discussion or if you want to at a future date. My understanding is that with the construction process, most of the cost associated with a name change, the significant costs — if we were to think of buildings and signage being the most significant items — those are the things that are going to be replaced in the construction process. And if we were to decide to change the name of the school, the most cost-effective time to do it would actually be in conjunction with the construction process.

And as one of the speakers [during public comments] mentioned, I had the opportunity to serve with the Texas State Guard and the Texas National Guard during the response to hurricane Harvey and the devastation that it brought to Texas. I saw and experienced much that I never dreamed that I would over the last three weeks. Here’s the most amazing part of that experience. When folks turned off the TV, stopped listening to all the things we’re supposed to be mad about, all the issues that drive us apart, we tuned out those voices and focused on what’s important and started helping our neighbors. It turned a disaster zone into a work of grace and beauty. It cut across racial lines, economic lines, social lines, religious lines — and it was beautiful. So…I know it is possible to see that kind of unity in the midst of controversy. I know it’s possible, and it might be fleeting, but it is possible. It’s my prayer that what we experience here in our city is exactly that — that as we look to the future, whatever path we choose to take, that it would be a work of grace and beauty.

So I don’t know how that leaves us in terms of how to move forward. I’ve heard generally in terms of how you feel. I can tell you that in any process moving forward, values that I would hold would be openness, number one — that this would be a decision made in a transparent way to the public. There are those who have asked me, ‘Gosh, why can’t just we put this to a vote?’ Which I have two responses to. The first is fairly simple. The lawyers have told us that we don’t have the legal authority to put an issue like this to vote. ….Of course, the board can act. We cannot hold an election for the community to vote on what they want these schools to be named. We don’t have the legal authority to do that. The second is — particularly for those who claim to uphold a respect for history — the history of the majority protecting the minority rights is one that is usually not solved in an election. It’s usually found first in the court. So even if we did have the ability to call an election, I don’t think that would be the right way to handle this issue.

Other values — Mr. Washmon I agree with you — [include] deliberateness. We have time to deal with this issue. We have time to gather input. We have time to listen to the community, to listen to the best arguments on each side. We have time in terms of the construction process. We’re not at a point where we have to make decisions on the name of the school that would be impacted by the construction process.

My concern with timing…is also related to the issue of distraction. So I share your concern that we would not be distracted from our main job of student achievement. This meeting is an example. Other than a full thirty minutes spent in public comment, we were able to accomplish everything that was put before us in the area student achievement in this meeting. I think it was the case in the prior meeting as well. So I think it is possible for this board to maintain its focus on student achievement. I think it’s also possible for this superintendent, because I see this principally as a board issue, not one that requires significant staff and superintendent focus on, that would risk his focus on student achievement.”

[Here board member Wade Washmon interjected, cutting off the conclusion of Hager’s remarks.]