A furor has erupted over whether Robert E. Lee High School in Baton Rouge should preserve its historic name, change it to simply Lee High or Lee Magnet High, or come up with something brand new.
However, it wasn’t always named after the Confederate general. It originally was called Southdowns High School, after the subdivision where the high school was built. It already had a Southdowns Elementary, a school still in operation.
On Dec. 12, 1957, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board awarded a $2.3 million contract to build a new junior and senior high school, Southdowns Junior-Senior High School, at 1105 Lee Drive.
Six months later, on May 21, 1958, the School Board decided to rename the under-construction school Robert E. Lee Junior-High School. It’s not clear why, and the official minutes of the meeting don’t say. A news story from the time says vaguely that the board acted at the request of “patrons” of the new school.
The school, with the new name, opened in September 1959.
There was an obvious reason to rename the school Lee. It was being built on Lee Drive. The high school recently was rebuilt at the same location at 1105 Lee Drive for a much pricier $54.7 million, nearly three times the original cost in inflation-adjusted dollars, and is weeks from reopening.
Of course, Lee Drive was named for Robert E. Lee. North-south streets in the Southdowns subdivision in fact originally were named after Civil War generals, including Hood, Stuart and Pickett avenues; the east-west streets in Southdowns were named after flowers.
Anti-civil rights sentiment also could have played into the decision. Schools throughout the South were named during this time after Confederate war heroes. It was nearing the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. The landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation had came down four years earlier, in 1954. An immediate backlash spread throughout the South. Black families in East Baton Rouge Parish filed their own desegregation case in 1956, which wasn’t resolved until 2007.
It’s possible things might come full circle. A school renaming committee has come up with three new names for Robert E. Lee High School. One, favored by parents, is the similar but more ambiguous Lee Magnet High. Harper Lee Magnet High School, named after the author of the novel “To Kill A Mockingbird,” is the second choice.
The third choice? Southdowns Magnet High School.
La. sheriffs’ roles touted in YouTube post
The six-pointed star of a sheriff’s badge in most places across the U.S. signifies the chief lawman in a county.
But Louisiana’s sheriffs have more power than any of their counterparts across the country because they also play key roles in the financial and judicial systems of their parishes — namely by also being the tax collectors and “CEOs of the courts.”
That’s the message of a public service announcement, posted on YouTube, created by the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association in conjunction with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proclamation Wednesday that last week was Louisiana Sheriffs and Deputies Appreciation Week.
Edwards’ brother, father, grandfather and great-grandfather all have served as sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish.
“When you talk about a ‘department,’ there is some suggestion that it is subordinate to a government. That’s clearly not the case with Louisiana sheriffs,” Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeffrey Wiley said in the video, called “The Role of the Sheriff.”
The 30-minute clip — which features some of the state’s 64 sheriffs along with other notables like Louisiana District Attorneys Association director E. Pete Adams, State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson and corrections Secretary James LeBlanc — traces the origins of “sheriff” to “shire-reeve,” or the guardian of the shires of England.
“Thomas Jefferson believed that the office of sheriff was the most important of all the executive offices in the country,” the narrator says.
Sheriffs gained prominence in the U.S. during the westward expansion of the 1800s, when “lawlessness reached an all-time high,” the voice says, showing a picture of famed bandits Bonnie and Clyde, who were killed by the Bienville Parish sheriff and others in 1934.
The video — which at one point has a montage of deputies at work on boats, set to rock ’n’ roll music — highlights other sheriffs’ work like community service, children’s education about safety, along with running local jails.
Over 50 percent of state prisoners are housed in local sheriffs’ jails across the state, LeBlanc says in the video.
The state pays sheriffs a per-diem for each state inmate housed in a local jail, and often those inmates work jobs as part of their rehabilitation. “I think it’s a deal,” says Rapides Parish Sheriff William Earl Hilton, who says he gets about $25 a day per inmate.
As for pretrial inmates — in other words, not the state’s inmates — Hilton said he gets only a few dollars a day to keep those offenders. “So that’s a losing proposition there,” he says in the video.
Advocate staff writers Charles Lussier and Maya Lau contributed to this article.