East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Connie Bernard is apologizing for recently saying those offended by the name of Lee High School in Baton Rouge should "learn a little bit more about" Confederate General Robert E. Lee, for whom the school is named.

“My comments last week about the naming of Lee High School were insensitive, have caused pain for others, and have led people to believe I am an enemy of people of color, and I am deeply sorry,” Bernard said in a written statement issued Friday afternoon. “I condemn racial injustice in any form. I promise to be part of the solution and to listen to the concerns of all members of our community. I stand with you, in love and respect.”

On Thursday, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board voted unanimously, after a lengthy debate, to form a special committee to come up with alternative names for the 61-year-old high school. It was a striking reversal for the School Board, which in 2016 voted to keep the school named Lee High, but excised the "Robert E" part of the name. Bernard is one of the five board members who voted then to keep Lee in the name, which she said she did because of the strong feelings of many school alumni and constituents.

Before the meeting, in a June 10th interview with WVLA-33, Bernard said that parents and students uncomfortable with a school named Lee High don’t know their history.

“I would hope that they would learn a little bit more about General Lee, because General Lee inherited a large plantation and he was tasked with the job of doing something with those people who lived in bondage to that plantation, the slaves, and he freed them,” Bernard said.

A parade of speakers, including three of her fellow School Board members, strongly criticized Bernard at Thursday's meeting.

“You should walk out of here and resign and never come back,” said Gary Chambers, publisher of The Rouge Collection, “because you are the example of racism in this community. You are horrible.”

Just prior to taking the mike, Chambers posted a picture of Bernard on her laptop, apparently shopping online for dresses. As he started speaking, he held up his phone.

“This is a picture of you shopping while we’re talking about the history of racism in this country,” Chambers said. “You don’t give a damn.”

On Friday, Bernard told The Advocate that what people saw on her laptop was an accident, a pop up ad that she failed to close. She said she was struggling with technology Thursday, going back and forth between a district-owned and a personal computer.

“I wasn’t shopping,” she said. “I was actually taking notes, paying attention, reading online comments.”

Arthur Pania of Baton Rouge, who attended Thursday's School Board meeting, took to Facebook Saturday afternoon to rebut Bernard.

"I personally watched her for about eight minutes, attempting to decide between a beige and red dress," Pania wrote. "The only thing I had issue determining from my sight was if it was a short dress or nightware."

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After Chambers’ comment, Bernard left the room for a few minutes, apparently in response to the pointed criticism, but Bernard said she simply had to use the restroom.

Most striking Thursday was the criticism of her fellow African American board members.

“It was disturbing that a fellow board member would be so insensitive and say some inaccurate things about history that would just fan a flame,” said board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson.

“The comments you made were extremely tone deaf to our collective community, extremely tone deaf to the students of our district, and I would be remiss if I did not stand up and stand against that,” said Board Vice President Tramelle Howard. “I understand where you were coming from in trying to recognize history but it’s just wrong, totally wrong. This man was a murderer, he was a racist and a bigot.”

Several speakers on Thursday offered Bernard a sharp-edged history lesson.

“Robert E Lee was a brutal slavemaster,” said Chambers. “Not only would he whoop the slaves, he said, ‘Lay it on ‘em hard.’ After he said that, he said, ‘Put brine on them.’"

“Under the demands of his late father’s will, which demanded he free all slaves after five years, Lee tried multiple times to resist and keep the slaves under his control, yet his name hangs over our school,” said board member Dadrius Lanus.

Pania told the board that Bernard’s description of Lee is similar to the erroneous picture painted of Lee by groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and that leaders like Bernard should not perpetuate such myths.

“(Lee) stood up for the Confederacy,” Pania said. “No way you get around that.”

In her statement, Bernard said it's "an exciting time" and that "our students are taking the lead in righting racial injustice and in changing major paradigms of social justice."

“I agree with Drew Brees when he said, ‘We have a long way to go…. We can do better. We are all part of the solution.’ I promise I will be part of the solution.”

This story has been updated.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com.