What young Robert E. Lee students had to say at last night’s weighty school board meeting

At last night’s school board meeting, over two dozen people, most of them current students and recent graduates of Robert E. Lee High School, shared their views on how the school’s name impacts them and their community. Students spoke about everyday racism on campus, how non-Tylerites have reacting upon hearing where they go or went to high school, and how learning the history of school segregation in East Texas has shaped their views on this issue. As they read their statements, dozens of fellow meeting attendees frequently rose from their seats in a show of support, holding small signs that read “Change the name.”

Young student voices have been largely absent from the months-long public debate over this issue. The Tyler Loop has collected statements made by students at the Monday night meeting. Here is a selection of those statements, lightly edited for clarity and length:

“By continuing under the school name ‘Robert E. Lee’ it seems we as a city aren’t learning from history, but are repeating it. We have memorialized a man who fought against our nation to keep slavery. A man who never stepped foot in Texas. When someone who is not from the area asks me what school I attend, I am embarrassed because the few times I have said it, the person I am speaking to automatically has a preconceived notion of who I am, what my school represents, and what my city represents.” — Brandon Collins, 17, junior

“We’d love to believe that racism is over at Robert E. Lee, but it’s quite the contrary. Earlier this year a good friend of mine, who happens to be black, had an incident in her class. She uses her First Amendment right every morning and chooses not to stand for the pledge. That is her business and a topic unrelated to this. The problem was that one day, for no reason at all, a white student told her to, ‘Stand up, nigger.’ That is unacceptable…I personally feel that the name of our school gives this type of racism the power it needs to thrive.” — Taniyah Jones, 17, junior

“The name ‘Robert E. Lee High School’ was chosen in 1956, two years after the Supreme Court’s decision to integrate public schools in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. This was a part of a massive reactionary movement across the South wherein senators, representatives, governors, and school boards pledged their loyalty to the cause of segregation. The name Robert E. Lee was chosen to send a message to the black community of Tyler…This message reverberates like the shot of a cannon at each football game, on each t-shirt, and on every college application I submit…The desire to change the name of Robert E Lee High School comes not from a desire to erase history, but a desire to acknowledge a more complete history.” — Matthew Spellman, 18, senior

“I don’t like honoring a man who led the South to keep slavery and to secede from our nation. People argue it happened long ago and should not be a problem any more…As a 15-year-old black teen, I feel insulted being asked to run, play, and perform in his honor. If you do not think I’m asked to honor the man Robert E. Lee, look at the words of our school song: Robert E. Lee we raise our voice in praise of your name. May honor and glory e’er guide you to fame…Our memories will bind us to Robert E. Lee. Those words make clear that I am being asked to memorialize his actions and beliefs.” — Nick Knight, 15, freshman

On hearing that board members had publicly stated opposition to further discussing or voting on this issue:

“I feel disappointed because we live in a country that is, or should be, built off of the people’s voices. When the opportunity to even vote for something is taken away it is a step back rather than a step forward in our society. The times have changed and in order to make progress as a community, we have to at least be able to vote on the name change.” — Rhea Dhakal, 17, senior

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Tasneem Raja is the Executive Editor of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history, and demographics in Tyler, Texas. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and led a team that built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of digital journalism, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in Tyler with her husband, her stepson, and two imperious terriers.
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