Supporters of changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School in Baton Rouge got a chance Thursday to speak their piece, but they were joined by a strong contingent of alumni who pressed to retain the school’s connection to the Confederate general.
“I know all you people in this room are not racists, but Lee was,” said Nchingha Shabaka. “He tried to uphold the legacy of slavery and keep it going forever.”
“Robert E. Lee was not a hero to us,” said the Rev. Ralph Nea Moore.
“He was a terrorist.”
Moore added that naming a school after Robert E. Lee is as offensive to African-Americans as naming a school after Adolf Hitler would be to Jewish people.
Storm Mathews, who said she’s the daughter of a Black Panther, countered that Robert E. Lee was more racially progressive in the lead-up to the Civil War than Abraham Lincoln and was key to reuniting the country after the war.
“He did more than anyone to reconcile us as one country,” said Mathews.
Thaddus Swazer, a 2007 graduate who wore a T-shirt saying “Robert E. Lee Pride,” urged keeping the name, saying the school, when he attended, was racially diverse and welcoming to all.
“It didn’t matter who you were,” he said. “You were part of one family.”
Thirty-six people spoke at Thursday’s community forum to an audience of fewer than 100 people, far short of what school officials had prepared for.
Those who didn’t speak, though, can still post thoughts and suggestions on a special web page, ebrschools.org/school-renaming-community-forum. Between now and Friday at midnight, they can text suggestions to (225) 650-7087, typing in the number 81010 and “@leename.” Written comments can be dropped off at the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board Office at 1050 S. Foster Drive by close of business on Monday; offices are closed Friday. The information will be compiled in a report for the School Board.
The board plans to meet June 16 to decide what the name of the school should be. Lee High was recently rebuilt at a cost of $54.7 million, and students are scheduled to arrive Aug. 10 for start of the 2016-17 school year.
The naming debate is somewhat of a surprise. Lee High’s reopening, conversion to a dedicated magnet school and reconstruction have been several years in the making.
School system leaders throughout have stuck with the name Lee High, despite increasing controversy around the country over anything named after Civil War figures. New Orleans city leaders have approved the removal of four Jim Crow-era monuments, including a prominent statue of Robert E. Lee. Those removals are on hold while the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reviews a lawsuit filed to keep the statues in place.
Robert E. Lee High School opened in 1959 and its official name has never changed. In 2005, though, the school changed its mascot from the Rebels to the Patriots. School literature for years has opted for just “Lee High,” leaving out “Robert E.” The official name remains “Robert E. Lee High” and shows up on records such as school report cards, something that surprised even some alumni.
“I am a 1970 graduate and I have never called it Robert E. Lee High School,” said Arlene Byrd. “I thought that had long ago disappeared.”
Several parents of current students, however, noticed the “Robert E.” part and didn’t like it.
On Feb. 23, the school’s parent-teacher organization requested to rename the school Lee Magnet High School.
A school renaming committee met May 31 and came up with three possible new names: Lee Magnet High School, Harper Lee Magnet High School and Southdowns Magnet High School.
Ty Heard, who will be a senior at Lee High next year, has been the biggest proponent of naming the school after Harper Lee, the famed author of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Doing so, Heard said, would remove the ambiguity of what Lee actually refers to and would allow the school to stand on the national stage with other top schools.
“We want to stand for something that’s positive,” Heard said. “We want something that is inclusive.”
Several speakers spoke up for keeping at least “Lee” in the school’s name as a tie to its many graduates.
“It’s critical for alumni to be connected to that school,” said Warren Byrd, class of 1968. “It’s going to be one of the premier schools in the nation.”
Several current students spoke in favor of the name Lee Magnet High School, which many have long called the school among themselves. Two even came up with a chant: “Robert E. Lee is your past, but Lee Magnet is our future.”
“If we change it to something neutral,” said student Emir Sykes, “we wouldn’t have the tension that is in this room now.”
And there was at least one cheeky proposal.
Tom Swain, an East Baton Rouge Parish teacher, said that in light of possible budget cuts the school should go to the marketplace to fetch the highest price for the naming rights, much as sports arenas do.
“We should put it out for bid,” Swain said.
Walter McGlaughlin, a 1998 graduate, said he made great friends at Lee High and even met his wife there, but said the school was so awash in Civil War nostalgia that he and his peers were embarrassed to say they went there. He said he urged then as a student that the school change its name and is doing so now.
Dinah Harrell, who has two children who will attend Lee High in the fall, said she came to Thursday’s forum because her son was upset the school was going to be renamed. She said she had no prior opinion and hadn’t read or watched anything in advance. But after listening to everyone, she said, it is probably best to settle on a new, uncontroversial name, but to do it soon.
“Our daughter is on the swim team,” Harrell said. “We cannot even order uniforms because we don’t know what we are going to be named yet.”