Splitting along racial lines, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday changed the name of Robert E. Lee High School in Baton Rouge to just Lee High School, falling short of the demands of black leaders who pressed for a name with no connection to the Confederate general.
Board members were unable to agree on suggestions floated in the days ahead of the vote that would have more decisively divorced the name Lee from the famous Virginian, including the idea of turning Lee into an acronym.
The final vote was 5-4:
For: Board members Mark Bellue, Connie Bernard, Jill Dyason, Barbara Freiberg and David Tatman.
Against: Dawn Collins, Vereta Lee, Kenyetta Nelson-Smith and Evelyn Ware-Jackson.
Bernard made the successful motion to shorten the name to just Lee High School. She balked at adding the word Magnet.
Lee High parents and many current students supported the slightly longer Lee Magnet High School. Bernard cited the potential expense of changing signs at the school — at least $250,000 was the estimated cost. She also said she didn’t want to limit the school’s future options with a narrow name.
“I want to leave the door open to have traditional students that don’t have a 2.5 GPA to go there in the future,” Bernard said.
As it became obvious the board was not going to abandon Lee, the debate soured.
Nzingha Shabaka stood up and began shouting at the board members and was escorted outside, not to return.
“This is a sham!” she yelled. “White kids get everything!”
Speaking with a calm voice, Gary Chambers, publisher of The Rouge Collection, an online publication, was no less cutting. He warned board members unambiguously how their vote would be viewed.
“We have a white majority,” Chambers said. “I think your decision will tell us whether or not you’re a racist. Point blank.”
The renaming debate was set in motion Feb. 23 when a group of Lee High parents urged Superintendent Warren Drake to rename the school Lee Magnet High School, excising Robert E. The Magnet part reflects the school’s conversion in 2013 to a dedicated magnet school.
A renaming committee held a sparsely attended meeting May 31 and came up with three suggestions for a new name: Lee Magnet High School, which Drake subsequently recommended, as well as Harper Lee Magnet High School and Southdowns Magnet High School.
Two days later, a group of prominent black leaders in Baton Rouge urged the School Board to come up with more alternatives, particularly alternatives with no connection to Robert E. Lee.
Drake agreed to hold another meeting June 9, at which 36 speakers offered suggestions. Some urged no change, some urged changes similar to those suggested by Lee High parents, and some suggested wholesale name changes.
After Thursday’s vote, Ware-Jackson was unhappy at the collapse of compromise efforts. She said she had suggested not making a final decision Thursday and instead keeping the current name until there was a more comprehensive debate about coming to new name.
“The timing is terrible,” Ware-Jackson said. “Children have class rings they have ordered. They have uniforms they have ordered. And we’re still not giving them Lee Magnet High School.”
Like Ware-Jackson, Collins also urged more time. A 1994 graduate, Collins pushed for coming up with a brand-new name for the school.
“I didn’t enter race into this discussion,” she said. “Race was there from the day it was named Robert E. Lee.”
In its planning stages and during initial construction, the school was named Southdowns High School. In May 1958, the school was renamed Robert E. Lee High School. It opened in September 1959 by that name and retained that name for 67 years.
The new name, Lee High School, now heads to the Louisiana Department of Education, which has final say on public school names, but it’s expected to be approved.
As they weighed whether to change the school’s name, East Baton Rouge Parish school officials collected suggestions online, via text and in writing. Along with comments made June 9, the results were compiled and given to the School Board for consideration. They add up to 116 pages.
Some alumni fought hard to keep the school’s full name as Robert E. Lee High.
A. Hays Town III read aloud a letter that then-President Dwight Eisenhower wrote in 1960, responding to a letter from someone who questioned why he had a portrait of Robert E. Lee on display in his office
“He (Eisenhower) held him in high esteem,” Town said.
Kathleen Richard Callahan, whose son graduated from the Lee High School class of 1990, said she grew up near the school and remembers when it was being built on Lee Drive. She said the school’s name has negative connotations and should go.
“I do remember the context when this school was named (in 1958),” Callahan said. “It was named in the early days of the civil rights movement. There’s a message and symbolism there that’s pretty strong.”
Lee High student Charlie Stevens said changing the name to just Lee doesn’t remove the school’s connection to the general.
“If you go to Lee Magnet High School, you’re still going to Robert E. Lee High School,” Stevens said.
James Finney, a board watcher, disagreed.
“The name Lee High School is a dramatic improvement from Robert E. Lee. It’s not trivial,” Finney said. “It’s worth recognizing that what’s being proposed is significant.”