In schools in Texas and around the country, African American children are learning and chatting between class bells in schools named after Robert E. Lee, the foremost Confederate commander who fought to prolong slavery. There have been many necessary conversations about Confederate statue removal, and it is imperative the dialogue continues about every school named for a Confederate figure.
This is sadly not a small problem. There are more than 109 schools in the country and more than 25 in Texas named after Confederate icons. In Texas, these include schools with sizable minority populations like Robert E. Lee Elementary in Eagle Pass, Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Dallas and Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler. Both Tyler ISD and Dallas ISD school board members have thankfully begun the renaming process for both of their schools, but there are plenty of institutions that need to discuss the potent messages of endorsement their school names lend to Confederates.
Even in Austin, schools have wrestled with naming problems. Until last year, Russell Lee Elementary in Austin was Robert E. Lee Elementary. The AISD school board chose venerated photographer Russell Lee, the first professor of photography at the University of Texas, because, “his name also allows us to retain ‘Lee’ as the name of our community while allowing us to attribute the name to a person we feel genuinely embodies our values.” Their decision to change is commendable — keeping the name would have implicitly condoned the exclusion of minority students.
Richard Reddick, an associate professor in educational administration, recalls his experience as a black student as at a high school named after Albert Sydney Johnston. At seventeen, he was mostly untroubled about the name of his school, but he says, “As I got older, I started viewing history more critically, and I realized that this was problematic. This was a person who didn’t have my best interest in mind and who didn’t think I was a whole person.”
Reddick noted that his school was named in the 1960s, as were many schools named after Confederates, in reaction to Brown v. Board and the progression of civil rights. These were calculated name changes meant to intimidate students of color.
Nevertheless, name changes can be contentious because some feel their history is being taken from them. Often, people’s views of history are skewed by glorifications. “We tend to have a very underdeveloped history when it comes to the Confederacy because a lot of it is propaganda.” Reddick said. “We tend to make caricatures of historical figures. They are black or white. They are good or bad. We aren’t really exploring the fact that people are complex.”
We venerate Confederate figures by placing their names on our places of learning, and contextualizing them is the very least we can do.
Above all else, when dealing with Confederate symbols and names, we must, as Reddick says, not lose sight “of the significance of having that discourse.”
All schools must at least consider whether the names that hang in large black letters above the door genuinely reflect the values of their students and their faculty.
If the answer is no, then it’s certainly time for a change.
Doan is a Plan II and English junior from Fort Worth.