Following years of outcry over a Baton Rouge high school bearing the namesake of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the parish school board on Thursday agreed to rename the majority-Black school Liberty High School, the latest local action in response to protests against racism and police brutality.

The school board on Thursday approved a proposal in an 8-1 vote that jettisoned the name Lee High School during its virtual meeting and debate over whether to name the school after Louisiana's — and the country's — first governor of Black descent. Board member Tramelle Howard cast the lone "no" vote but did not discuss why he voted against the name Liberty High.

“I know what they did in 1959 was horrendous and done in the wrong spirit,” said board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson, adding that she’s happy leaders are  “correcting that wrong." The school opened in 1959.

In recent years, the school's name has become a flashpoint among some residents and school leaders. They say it is inappropriate for a school that is 80% Black to be named after a Confederate leader and slave owner. 

The latest push to change the school’s name came amid a reckoning of America’s history of racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of a White Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day.

Protests across the nation and in Louisiana against police misconduct following Floyd's death have also dovetailed into pushes to rename and remove public namesakes and monuments with ties to slavery and the Confederacy.

Amid that growing pressure, school officials agreed Lee High should be renamed and in past weeks drew thousands of suggestions from the public on what it should be called next.

With more than 5,000 suggestions, the top vote-getter was iterations of Liberty. 

Other recommendations school board members considered were Louisiana Magnet High School and P.B.S. Pinchback Magnet High School, after Louisiana's and the country's first Black governor.

Board member Dadrius Lanus expressed disappointment school leaders didn’t initially discuss naming the school after Pinchback, who served as governor during Reconstruction.

“Whenever it comes of celebrating someone of color or someone who’s Black, it’s hard for us to do," Lanus said. “We have nothing to do that celebrates Black people."

A motion Lanus offered to rename the school after Pinchback was eventually struck down by a majority of board members. 

Some of them said they were wary of naming the school after a person following years of issues with the school's now-former name. 

“I think we need to get away from that,” said board member David Tatman. 

Superintendent Warren Drake said he also favors keeping the school’s colors and mascot, echoing the requests students had made earlier this week. 

Drake and other school officials declined to call the school a magnet school, which was among the earlier renaming efforts a few years ago.

The name change will cost an estimated $250,000 to $300,000, but only $250 had been raised so far, Drake said. 

From 1959 to 2016, Lee High had been called Robert E. Lee High School. A similar effort to rename it in 2016 saw the school board cut “Robert E.” from the magnet school’s name.

Still, residents and some school board members said the tweak to the name wasn't enough. They called for Lee to be stripped from the school's name, saying it is a painful reminder of slavery and racial prejudice.

Those calls intensified in the weeks ahead of the final vote following a comment made by school board member Connie Bernard to a local TV station defending Robert E. Lee, which she later apologized for.  

Bernard was further criticized after activists displayed photos of her appearing to shop for clothes during a board meeting last month in which the Lee High name was being debated.

Some board members, including the board's president, have called for Bernard to resign. Some members also backed an effort to recall Bernard from her seat. 

School leaders also laid out plans Thursday to bring students back to campuses for the first time since mid-March when the state ordered schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Regardless if students come back to physical classrooms, Lee High School's will undergo its name change before the beginning of the school year on Aug. 6.


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad