The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board has a lot of nerve even contemplating a name change for Baton Rouge’s Robert E. Lee High School.
Let’s face it, many of the students whose educations are under the board’s charge would be hard-pressed to explain who Robert E. Lee was. One national survey found that a majority of 17-year-olds could not identify when the Civil War was fought. Could the results be better among a representative sample of the products of the East Baton Rouge system?
The board will consider changing the school’s official name from Robert E. Lee High School to Lee Magnet High School.
Although school literature refers to “Lee High” and the school’s mascot was changed more than a decade ago from Rebels to Patriots, official documents such as school report cards still give the full name, Robert E. Lee High. The proposed new name is a compromise that excises the famous Confederate general in a more palatable way.
Like the unwise campaign against Confederate monuments in New Orleans, this is another divisive debate launched in communities with much deeper problems than the delicate sensibilities of the students of today, who would be lucky to identify the dates of the war within 50 years of the fact.
In most of Lee’s lifetime, he was best-known as son of a famous hero of the American Revolution. That’s now overshadowed by retrospective moral judgment about Lee’s life.
The Lee High Rebels of 1959 were named by the white majority in town as civil rights was coming to the forefront of consciousness, just as many of New Orleans’ rebel monuments were erected as white supremacy was enshrined in law after Reconstruction. Streets near Lee High are named for other Confederate generals.
With Lee’s history of holding slaves, and then fighting for the Confederacy, the Lee legend is one of the most debated stories in American history. As a military commander he has few peers in history; he was known after the war as an advocate of national reconciliation.
In Michael Korda’s new biography, Lee’s complicated relationship with the cruelties of slavery is related, good and bad. The Army colonel’s profligate father-in-law left slaves to be freed after various conditions were met, but the estate was so mismanaged that it was the bane of Lee’s existence just before the war.
When war came, Lee might have disregarded the emancipation provisions of his father-in-law’s will, but at the end of 1862, he fulfilled them to the letter.
That’s a story that ought to be taught, because it shows the texture of historical events and reveals an insight into character of someone whose comments about slavery often were typical of his race and class in pre-war Virginia, but also differed with his peers on occasion.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing: Gary Chambers, publisher of The Rouge Collection, read to the School Board a quote from Lee’s letters in which the general said blacks were better off as slaves than in Africa.
Chambers might have quoted similar sentiments from one Abraham Lincoln, who for years advocated transplanting black Americans into Liberia, or almost anywhere other than Illinois. Lincoln apparently held that view up to his White House days, even as he was evolving — to use President Barack Obama’s word on gay marriage — to a new position politically.
America had quite a long way to go in race relations in North and South in the 1800s, and well after. Lee High School has a lot to teach about its namesake, and the study of Lee’s life would benefit students of all races and classes.
Email Lanny Keller at email@example.com.