Unfinished history: Black Tyler’s long fight to change the name — and many other things — at Robert E. Lee High

Tyler school board members will discuss tonight what, if anything, the district should do about the name of Robert E. Lee High School. In the wake of a major white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, some Tylerites say the name is offensive and divisive and that now is the time to change it. Others say changing the name would erase history. At last month’s Tyler school board meeting, which drew nearly 300 people, about forty people spoke for or against a change. Tonight, the public will have another chance to express their views, and the board will discuss what should happen next. (If you’re new to this story, check out our timeline on the history of segregated schools in Tyler.)

Tylerites who insist the name isn’t a problem ask why no one raised this issue before. They question the need for this debate nearly sixty years after the school was founded, and some say the issue is being driven by “outside agitators.” A look at local history shows this is, in fact, not the first time Tylerites mounted opposition to the school’s name. Before and after Robert E. Lee High School was desegregated in 1970, black students and parents registered serious concerns with the school board and elsewhere about the school’s name. Nothing was done in response.  

I dug into the files of the late William Wayne Justice, the legendary Tyler federal judge who, in the early ‘70s, forced Texas public schools to desegregate and triggered the removal of Confederate symbols from Lee’s school grounds. I wanted to piece together what happened the last time the school’s name was publicly called into question. Judge Justice’s papers, housed at the University of Texas law school’s Tarleton Library in Austin, offer insights into how white leaders in Tyler fought or resisted desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. 

As Tyler grapples with this question again, fifty years after the first integrated class entered Lee, the judge’s files show that black Tyler’s concerns about black children attending Robert E. Lee High School didn’t end with the school’s name. Among other things, they asked for fairer selection of cheerleaders and majorettes, more black coaches and the teaching of black history, and an end to playing or singing any form of “Dixie.” They said white school officials were disproportionately quick to punish black students, and they voiced concern that basic black hair-care tools had been labeled weapons and banned. Leaders of a black parents’ group also voiced fears that a biracial committee created by Judge Justice to try to bridge Tyler’s racial divides had been rendered impotent, leaving “students and the community with no place to carry their problems.”

Tyler’s white-dominated school board resisted such pushback for years, appealing Judge Justice’s rulings and ignoring pleas for change. The records I’ve found indicate that, more than once, board members offered no response when delegations of black parents and students came to board meetings seeking a change in Lee’s name and Confederate symbols. White school board members also used clashes between white and black students at Lee to deny black students’ requests, placing blame for unrest entirely on black students. On many of these issues, the black community eventually stopped asking.

But the name and what it symbolizes to Tyler’s black community still gall. That was clearly evidenced by the number of black community members and leaders who showed up at last month’s meeting. Many of them told me they weren’t there to speak, but to witness whether this school board would be willing to retire the name and give black Tylerites the consideration their predecessors had been denied.

The slow road to integration

After Brown v. Board of Education, the Tyler Independent School District inched along on the question of desegregation, delaying the process with long negotiations and slow-moving “freedom-of-choice” plans that allowed, but did not encourage, some students to attend schools outside their own, tightly segregated attendance zones. In the summer of 1970, Judge Justice ordered immediate and total integration of Tyler schools. In a devastating blow to black Tyler, the board fought to shut down all-black Emmett Scott High School, rather than integrate it, and won.

Two weeks before Tyler’s first integrated classes would assemble and begin the 1970 school year, the school board ignored pleas from the black community to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School. More than 400 people crowded into the boardroom for that meeting, and loudspeakers broadcast to more outside as a lawyer presented a petition from 500 black Tylerites. The signers wanted a promise of fair treatment for all students, black and white. When the lawyer was finished, a white school board member moved to keep Lee’s name “unchanged for the present time.” Other board members asked for a delay in any vote, and the discussion was over.

On Aug. 31, nearly 300 black students arrived at Lee for the start of the school year, and twice that many enrolled at John Tyler. At Lee, the band still played ‘Dixie.’ Confederate flags fluttered on school grounds. Lee’s Rebels, black and white, ran out on the football field beneath a massive stars-and-bars flag, the pride of all-white Lee since 1963 and billed as the world’s second largest Confederate flag.

Two weeks after classes started, a 21-year-old black man who had helped organize the summer’s petition drive to change the name opted to stop asking; he was arrested on Sept. 10 with 25 Molotov cocktails and pleaded guilty to plotting to burn down the school district’s administrative offices and buses. He said he wanted to send a hard message to the district and its white leadership for not changing the school’s name. His arrest clearly spooked the town; coverage in the local papers barely mentioned the Lee name controversy as the plotter’s motivation. Later coverage didn’t mention it at all, and only out-of-town press reported the comments made by the young man’s lawyer on the day his client was sentenced to five years in federal prison: “It was all borne of frustration.”

In the spring of 1971, attention shifted to newly integrated John Tyler as unrest there dominated local headlines. At least 250 black John Tyler students walked out of school amid conflict over perceived racial inequities in cheerleader elections. School officials came down hard, banning all walkout participants from re-entering the school until they and their parents submitted to interrogations by school officials. Black parents filed a federal lawsuit to get their kids back in school, and Judge Justice ordered that the students be allowed to return immediately.

Soon after, the Justice Department recommended that Judge Justice follow the example of other Southern school desegregation cases and create an advisory committee, with both black and white members, to address community concerns and come up with ways of preventing racial discrimination in Tyler schools.

Lawyers for the school district told Justice that a biracial committee “would serve no useful function.” Across Tyler’s white community, leaders circulated petitions demanding the judge’s impeachment. The judge told an out-of-town reporter that the effort drew 10,000 signatures, no small feat in a community of 65,000. At one school board meeting that May, a local white leader read a statement “deploring” Judge Justice’s order in the John Tyler cheerleading case and presented signatures of 3,000 citizens who wanted the board to fight Justice’s rulings in “the highest court in the land if necessary.”

Judge Justice plowed ahead nonetheless. He ordered that a committee begin work immediately. He cited testimony he’d heard in his courtroom from Tyler black students, parents and teachers, as well as from white school officials that he said showed “a lack of communication between the black and white community in adjusting to the transition from a dual [segregated] system…The mere fact that a dispute arising from a cheerleader election was brought before the federal court system speaks loudly of the need.”

Justice’s order mandated that eight members of the committee would be nominated by the school board and another eight by the group of black parents who had brought the cheerleader lawsuit. He instructed members to develop “ways and means of achieving interracial harmony and understanding among students, teachers and patrons.” The committee was also tasked with reviewing “all areas of school operation” relevant to desegregation, including investigating any complaints, and to advise the school board of their findings.

The judge added a warning for school officials: his court would give “substantial weight to the findings and conclusions of the biracial committee,” not only in the John Tyler cheerleader dispute but in “resolving further problems” in the district.

About a week later, black Lee students and parents returned to the school board to ask again for a name change at Lee. Three students and a parent representing Lee’s black students told the board that Lee’s Confederate symbols represented slavery. The Tyler Courier-Times quoted the parent telling the board that “black students at Lee feel the Civil War is fought over and over again each year between September and May.” One of the students said the sight of the Rebel flag and cannon “knock down black people’s pride. We don’t like white kids waving the rebel flag at us.” In Tyler’s black community, the student added, having to watch kids contend with the Confederate symbols each day “burns at our hearts.”   

In October, a delegation of black Lee students asked again. They gave the school board a petition seeking changes in Lee’s name and its symbols. This time, the board referred the request to Judge Justice’s biracial committee.  

Meanwhile, tensions at Lee were reaching a flash point. In November, fighting broke out between black and white students after a group of white students chanted provocative cheers and sang ‘Dixie’ in the school courtyard. A black student tossed gravel at the white students, and another black student allegedly threw a punch. More than a third of the student body stayed away from school the next day. There were more confrontations. Some white students waved Rebel flags and bellowed ‘Dixie’ during a morning pep rally. Some blacks raised clenched fists during the national anthem and waved scraps of a tattered Confederate flag.

The next week, the board pointedly refused to vote on recommendations from panels of Lee students, teachers, and parents that Lee’s name and symbols be changed. The Tyler Courier-Times reported that several hundred people watched that meeting in the boardroom, and more than 100 people listened to a broadcast as board members castigated black students and community leaders. “I don’t see the responsibility in the last thirty days that I thought we could expect out of the black community,” said white board member Donald Guinn, who was quoted by the newspaper. “I think the entire board and the entire administration has bent over backwards to give the black who comes into our schools the opportunity to stay and learn if he wanted to. ….Black and white alike are going to have to abide by the rules.”

“We are becoming more polarized because of things that are really not the majority’s wishes,” said white board member Marvin Thedford. “Whatever decision the board makes…is going to be wrong for a segment of our community. I hope that both races understand the gravity.”

The only black representative on the seven-member board, Martin Edwards, asked in vain for a vote on the name. “I think if each of us will look back to when we were youngsters,” he told fellow board members, “we dealt with some of our problems as our youngsters are today dealing with their problems.”

“I don’t think symbolism is the problem,” board member Goss responded. “If all students acted like ladies and gentlemen we would not have these problems…If the black students had been a little less arrogant, a little less demanding…compromise might have been accomplished.”

Faced with all of this and tasked with advising the school board, the chairman of Justice’s biracial committee chairman, a white businessman and oil and gas investor, wrote a letter to the judge seeking clarification on what, exactly, his committee’s role and authority was. “The entire committee met again on 16 November to  consider what action it should take, if any, on the request for a change in symbolism and/or the name of Robert E. Lee High School,” he wrote. “The question was brought up: when does the committee act to investigate a problem in the Tyler school system? Does it act upon instructions from the court or the school board or does it operate independently from the school board and court?”

The chairman seemed to be asking how far ought his committee go into territory the school board was unwilling to enter. Judge Justice issued a new order strengthening Tyler’s biracial committee; from now on, the group wouldn’t simply advise the school board. It would be an agent of Justice’s court, and the school board would be under court order to cooperate fully as the committee reviewed complaints and concerns about desegregation and racial discrimination in Tyler schools.

The committee chairman promptly resigned. In a letter to the judge, he wrote that his chief reason for quitting was that he believed the committee’s recommendations would “not be favorably received by the majority of residents in the Tyler School District area or the present Board of Trustees.” Within four years after quitting the biracial committee, that businessman would be instrumental in founding one of Tyler’s oldest and wealthiest private schools.

Pointing fingers and cleaning house at Robert E. Lee

In early January 1972, representatives of the Texas Education Agency, or TEA, arrived in Tyler with a warning for TISD officials. As part of his sweeping statewide desegregation ruling, Judge Justice had ordered the TEA to enforce his rulings banning school symbols that might be considered discriminatory or upsetting to racial harmony. At the time, Confederate symbols were everywhere at Lee. The school mascot was a Confederate soldier. The school band, decked in stars and bars, would play ‘Dixie’ as students waved rebel flags from the bleachers. The drill team was named the Rebelettes. The school’s Rebel Guard, seniors in authentic Confederate artillery uniforms, fired a replica of a 19th-century cannon named “Ole Spirit” every time the football team scored.

A month earlier, TEA had visited with Tyler school officials and told them that change had to come very soon for Lee’s symbols. Since then, the agency had gotten a formal complaint from someone in Tyler; that meant the district could find itself back in Judge Justice’s courtroom. If the district wanted to avoid more problems from the judge and the loss of accreditation and state funding, TEA officials warned, all of Lee’s Confederate symbols had to go.

The next day, school board members voted 5-2 to remove Lee’s Rebel mascot, Confederate flags, the ‘Dixie’ fight song, Rebelettes drill team, and other Confederate symbols. Local newspapers reported that the entire board voted that Robert E. Lee High School’s name would stay.

Following this decision, local newspaper accounts reported that some white students cried and others ranted, and other students silently watched as teachers stripped the school of Rebel flags, figurines, and mascots. The non-vote on the name change received only a terse mention in the newspaper, and no mention at all in a Tyler school district chronology documenting events of integration in Tyler schools from 1955 to 1973. That document did note that board members wanted to appeal Judge Justice’s biracial committee order all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and that the district would have to pay $2,207.50 for the off-duty policemen who patrolled Lee High School for those tense days in November.

From then on, public discussion about changing Tyler Lee’s name began to fade, even as racial tensions periodically sparked new incidents. On March 20, 1972, a Smith County grand jury issued a scathing report blaming “agitation by black militants both in Lee’s student body and outside the schools” for the November 11th incident. Both the Tyler Morning Telegraph and the Tyler Courier-Times noted that the grand jury report called it “a full-fledged riot,” claiming the fighting was far more serious than what newspaper reports and police statements had described as “skirmishes.” Both papers reported that the grand jurors blamed “mixing blacks and whites too quickly, due to the Federal Court Order of Judge William Wayne Justice.” The grand jury report pointedly dismissed claims that the incident was instigated by the presence of Confederate symbols at Lee, saying that theory was just “an excuse.”

In October of 1972, the group of black parents that had sued the school district over the cheerleader walkout at John Tyler wrote a three-page letter to Judge Justice and the biracial advisory committee, expressing dismay over the committee’s progress. “We of the concerned parents and patrons had high hopes that the biracial committee would be a guiding force during an emotional transition period,” the black parents wrote. “The committee in two and a half years has come to grips with only one problem: cheerleaders at John Tyler High School, and this was done under direct order of the court. This inactivity on your part has left students and the community with no place to carry their problems.”

For instance, the parents wrote, they had asked the committee months earlier to look into complaints that ‘Dixie’ was still being played by Lee’s school band. “We have not heard from the committee,” the parents wrote. “We do not know whether the committee deems this unimportant.” Both students and the black community needed assurance that their complaints would be taken seriously, the black parents wrote. They had ongoing concerns about fairness in the selection of drum majors and majorettes, about possible disparities in dress codes and corporal punishment and about the banning of personal items such as hair picks.

In November 1973, a group of black students wrote a manifesto for change titled “Black students recommendations for school improvement,” and a copy of the two-page document ended up on Judge Justice’s desk. Typed on TISD stationary, the document appeared to address issues at Lee but did not name the school, said black students were “hopelessly outnumbered” and felt disrespected and disregarded by “the great white majority.”

Black students weren’t allowed to pick their own representatives, they wrote, and were too small a minority to be able to elect the people they preferred for class offices or honors. Black students who were allowed to represent the school on a 20-member biracial committee didn’t necessarily voice the views of the majority of their black peers. “Black students needed to choose their own representatives, they wrote, because “we know who can best represent the black viewpoint.

The students wrote that blacks at Lee felt burdened by an “oppressive atmosphere” and the sense that white students “do not want us to be a part of the programs which matter most.” The school didn’t have enough vocational classes to prepare students for work, and there were no black history courses or few black history components in general classes. They wanted a black male counselor to mentor male black students, and they wanted more black coaches, particularly after a recent exchange in which a white coach was perceived as encouraging whites by belittling black students. And they wanted more diverse clubs; the documented noted that “black kids are not interested in rodeo.”

“We need ten people chosen in a hurry to represent our viewpoint,” they said at the end of their manifesto. “The pressure which the black students feel affects their attitude towards study and towards school attendance itself. The atmosphere here is oppressive. Many of the black seniors here would like to see some rapid improvement before they leave, for their brothers and sisters will be forced to come to this school. This thing is far from over. Some changes for the better need to come fast.” The bottom line: the students wrote: “This school should be closed and reorganized.” Though the document was kept in Judge Justice’s files, his papers include no responses from him or anyone else.

There is no record of black students or parents, or anyone else, publicly bringing up the name issue at Lee again through formal channels. Fighting between black and white students continued at the school, often on days when Rebel flags were flown by whites, and parents kept raising concerns that black students were being disproportionately punished simply for being black. More letters were written, more complaints filed. The biracial committee kept meeting until the late 1990s, when Judge Justice left Tyler. In ensuing years, the committee would take up the question of how John Tyler selected its drum majors and how Robert E. Lee selected its Southern Belles drill team, and how both schools disciplined and suspended blacks.

In time, the committee’s work quietly faded. As evidenced by last month’s school board meeting, many Tylerites, even old timers, don’t know that this isn’t the first time there’s been serious opposition to the name of Robert E. Lee High School, or the first time change-resistant Tylerites have anxiously wondered, “Where does it end?” A look back at what happened the first time reveals how fraught, lengthy, and complex such a process can be. It also suggests that if Tyler does not resolve this issue this time around, there’s a good chance we’ll have this same emotionally charged discussion again down the road. History does tend to repeat itself that way.