Despite unease among some East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members about a public high school bearing the name of a prominent Confederate, the board over the past decade has barely discussed, much less taken decisive action to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School. Members kept their silence despite multiple opportunities to address the elephant in the room.
Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson, who said she had doubts about a school named after the Confederate general, was waiting on citizens to raise the alarm before broaching the idea.
“I was holding my breath to see if anyone said anything,” she said.
Other board members with similar feelings say they didn’t speak up because they doubted their colleagues would do anything.
“I just regret that I didn’t bring it up,” said Tarvald Smith, who served on the board from 2004 to 2015.
On June 2, the muted alarm finally sounded, and it hasn’t stopped. Two heated public meetings occurred in a week’s time about the issue. The School Board is planning to vote Thursday. Members could keep the name as is, officially shorten it to just Lee or Lee Magnet, or come up with a new name with no connection to the Confederate general.
Lee High was demolished in 2013 and has since been rebuilt at a cost of $54.7 million. About 1,000 students are scheduled to arrive at their new school on Aug. 10, just eight weeks from now.
All the signage already in place there says Lee High School or Lee High Patriots. The initial cost estimate to replace those signs is at least $250,000.
Originally planned to be called Southdowns High School, the school was renamed Robert E. Lee High School in May 1958 early in construction. The all-white school opened with its new name in September 1959. It kept that name after it was racially integrated in the 1970s and shifted from a majority white to a predominantly black school, right until it closed in 2009. It kept the name when it was reopened in 2012 and was soon after converted to a dedicated magnet school.
The school’s full name for years rarely has been used by the school or the school system. Robert E. Lee High, however, still shows up on official documents such as school report cards, a disconcerting fact for some parents and students who think of the school as just “Lee.”
A portion of alumni — as well as members of the public — have argued at meetings that the school system needs to move away from honoring a man who fought a war on behalf of a society that enslaved black people.
Some alumni have defended the name, saying it is proper to honor Robert E. Lee.
Janice Vargas, a member of the Class of 1973, told a story Thursday of how soon after the war ended, Lee took communion next to a black man at an Episcopal church in Richmond, Virginia, when no one else would.
“I think it speaks volumes about the kind of man Robert E. Lee was,” Vargas said. “It is actions like this that show his acceptance of a new way of life.”
At another meeting, A. Hays Town III, who graduated in 1976, agreed that Lee deserves approbation. “He was a Southerner, he was a gentleman and he was a U.S. Army officer,” Town said.
Other alumni, however, say they rarely, if ever, thought of Lee in connection with the famed general from Virginia.
“As a person who went there and taught there, it was always just Lee High,” recalled Barbara Freiberg, who is now president of the School Board.
Lee High has the advantage of ambiguity. Lee is a common surname. Those who didn’t know could assume the high school was named after some other Lee from the past.
After months of discussion, Lee High’s parent-teacher organization voted unanimously on Feb. 18 to urge the school system to excise the “Robert E.” and change the school’s official name to “Lee Magnet High School.” It formally requested the change five days later in a letter to Superintendent Warren Drake. That letter lit the fuse for the belated naming debate.
Freiberg represents the Southdowns area and has made the revitalization of Lee High a cornerstone of her tenure on the board. She said she’s searching for a compromise that can tamp down the controversy but still preserve the goodwill of alumni.
“I haven’t gotten much sleep about all this. It’s tough. I hate to see my school go away,” she said. “But that may happen.”
Freiberg said she regrets not having a fuller discussion of this issue years ago, before the school was torn down and rebuilt.
“Maybe it was just me hoping no one would challenge the name of the school that I loved so much,” Freiberg said.
In the lead-up to the reopening of Lee High in its new facility, school leaders have been working with graduates to form an alumni association similar to ones at Baton Rouge Magnet High and Catholic High. Local businessman Ric Bajon has spent the past few months leading up that effort.
Bajon said there are alumni who want the name preserved as is, but most likely would be fine with shortening it to just Lee. Removing Lee entirely, however, might be devastating.
“If the school is not named Lee High School, I don’t know what kind of alumni association we’re gonna have,” he said.
Fear of alienating alumni partly explains why school system leaders throughout have stuck with the name Lee High, despite increasing controversy around the country over anything named after Civil War figures.
The closest the board came was during three community forums held in 2012 and 2013 to discuss what a future Lee High might look like.
At the first forum, held in June 2012, 150 people attended. They were divided in 12 small groups and brainstormed. While most of the suggestions focused on the educational programs a new Lee might offer, a few attendees suggested new school names, including Southdowns, Southside, Highland and College Town high schools. Some alumni who were present, black and white, however made clear they were against any name change.
Soon after, board member Jerry Arbour, who served from 2005 to 2015, said he subsequently got an earful from upset alumni.
“I’ve been threatened mayhem if you try to change the name of Lee High School,” Arbour told his colleagues at the time. “So I think you can disabuse yourself of the notion that we’re going to rename Lee High.”
Thoughts of renaming the school revived after the June 17 slayings of nine black people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The man arrested in those shootings, Dylann Roof, proclaimed online that he supported racial segregation. Pictures surfaced of Roof posing with a variety of neo-Nazi and white supremacist symbols, as well as the Confederate battle flag.
Within days, talk began around the South about removing Civil War symbols, many of which had survived previous controversies. New Orleans leaders proposed and later 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.
After Charleston, The Advocate reported on Baton Rouge’s memorials to the Civil War or Confederacy, including Robert E. Lee High School.
Freiberg said she was on alert then to see if anyone requested a name change, but once again, no one did.
The summer controversy, however, was part of what prompted Lee High parents that fall to start talking about renaming the school, said Leslie Defley, president of the high school’s PTO.
‘Rebels’ to ‘Patriots’
In 2005, the high school shed a contentious part of its heritage when students voted to change the longtime mascot from the Rebels to the Patriots.
The most overt Confederate symbols at the high school slowly were removed starting in the 1970s, but some remained. For instance, the Rebel logo was Colonel Rebel, a man dressed in an old-fashioned tail coat with a cravat and a Panama hat, an image meant to evoke a gentleman of the Old South. At games, students still would break out Confederate flags and other polarizing imagery.
Another issue was that Lee High at the time was a foreign language center. Then-Principal David Phillips recalled that the word “rebel” had different, often negative meanings, for some of those students.
“I had a kid who was nearly killed by the Taliban,” Phillips recalled. “He was a good kid, but he did something and the Taliban took it out on him. And that was his vision of ‘Rebels.’ ”
The decision to drop the Rebels was unpopular among some alumni, he said.
“Folks didn’t tell me to my face, but there was some ugly stuff that was said out there,” he said. “There were business owners and respected people in the community who really thought that was a low blow to do that.”
The school’s name, Robert E. Lee High, however, remained untouched. Phillips can’t recall anyone suggesting it should change. It was something everyone knew potentially was an issue, though, and no school official can plausibly claim ignorance to that, he said.
“If somebody is saying that, they are lying; they are totally oblivious to what’s going on,” Phillips said.
Then-School Board members Jay Augustine and Darryl Robertson spoke out about the school’s name in May 2009. The board that month voted to close the school, which was struggling academically, rather than risk a state takeover. The plan, however, was to reopen and rebuild it sometime in the future.
Augustine said if the school ever reopened, he would oppose any attempt to keep it as Robert E. Lee, a man he described as on the “wrong side of history.”
Augustine’s view hasn’t changed.
“That name is an in-your-face reminder of the second-class status of a certain segment of the community that Mr. Lee fought to maintain,” Augustine said.
Board member Vereta Lee said she assumed wrongly that the matter would be brought back to the board for more discussion, but it never was. The construction plans for the school, which Vereta Lee approved, however, continued to refer to the school as Robert E. Lee, something Vereta Lee admits she missed.
And while she’s opposed to keeping Lee in the school’s name, she also is reluctant to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to correct that problem at this late date, especially as the school system is facing millions in budget cuts.
On Thursday, she floated a compromise: Turn Lee into an acronym, suggesting “Leaders for Educational Excellence.” It retains the word “Lee” for alumni for whom that’s important but transforms its meaning, she said.
“You are killing two birds with one shot,” she said.
Freiberg said she’s toying with keeping the name Lee but allowing it to change in the future if the school system can persuade someone to put up a large endowment to fund school construction in the future. Her model is John McDonogh, a 19th-century businessman who left New Orleans and Baltimore lots of money to build schools for poor children, schools which were then named after McDonogh.
Otherwise, though, Freiberg said she is gun-shy when it comes to school names and human beings.
“At this point, I’m pretty wary of naming anything after a person,” she said.