Across South, a push to change Confederate school names
Published 11:56 am Monday, August 31, 2020
Trude Lamb is a standout cross country runner at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas, but the name on her jersey is a sharp reminder of a man “who didn’t believe people like me were 100% human.”
The sophomore, originally from Ghana, told the school board this summer that she had seen the horrific conditions of slave dungeons on the African coast and can’t support a name that celebrates a Confederate general who fought on the side of slavery. Along with many other students and alumni, she pushed to change the name this year in a campaign organized under the hashtag #wewontwearthename.
The school board approved the change in July after years of resistance.
“That name was not a black supporter. He owned slaves. He did anything he could to get rid of Black people. I’m like, ‘No, not wearing this name on my jersey,'” Lamb told The Associated Press.
More than 100 public schools in the U.S. are named for Confederate figures — roughly 90 of those for Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis or Gen. Stonewall Jackson — according to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many were founded during the days of segregation as all-white schools but now also serve African American students. At least a dozen have majority Black student bodies.
A renewed push has emerged to rename many of the schools as ongoing nationwide protests over police misconduct and racial injustice have spurred the removal of Confederate monuments. Multiple school systems in Alabama, Texas and Virginia have voted to change school names in recent months, but local resistance and state laws make that no simple task.
Lamb, who gained national attention for her letter to the Tyler school board, has become a target of social media posts with racist language and even threats of violence, her mother said.
In Montgomery, Alabama, three high schools are named after Lee, Davis and Sidney Lanier, a writer and poet who was a Confederate soldier. The schools have student populations ranging from 82% to 99% Black.
“It’s a basic insult to all the African American children who would have to walk past a statue or go to a school that is named after a white supremacist,” said Amerika Blair, a 2009 Lee graduate who was among those pushing for change.
The Montgomery County School Board voted in July to change the names of the three schools, but a 2017 state law protects Confederate monuments and other long-standing memorials and names. The school system will have to get a waiver from a committee, which could act in October at the soonest, or pay a $25,000 fine for breaking the law by changing the name without permission.
Like many other Confederate-named schools, Lee in Montgomery opened as an all-white school in 1955— a year after the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional — as the South was actively fighting integration. But white flight after integration orders and shifting demographics meant many of the schools became heavily African American.
A statue of Lee stood outside the school for decades— facing north to keep an eye on his enemies, according to school legend— but was toppled from in pedestal in June. Four people were arrested for knocking over the statue but the charges were later dropped.
Similar pushes to rename schools are taking place across the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center said about 40 schools have been renamed, or closed, in the past few years.
In Virginia, the removal of Confederate names began in the state’s northern region in 2018, when J.E.B. Stuart High in Falls Church changed to Justice High. Washington-Lee High School in Arlington changed its name to Washington-Liberty at the start of the 2019-2020 academic year.
The trend accelerated and expanded beyond the liberal northern Virginia suburbs as the Black Lives Matter protests took hold after the police killing of George Floyd died in Minneapolis in May.
Fairfax County voted for a new name for Robert E. Lee High. Stonewall Jackson High was renamed in Manassas, the place where the Confederate general earned his nickname in the first Battle of Bull Run. Rural Shenandoah County also changed the name of its high school named for Jackson. In Hanover County, a conservative jurisdiction outside Richmond, the school board narrowly voted to change the name of Lee-Davis High.
“Changing names is part of the transition from one era or epoch to another,” said historian Wayne Flynt, who has authored multiple books on Southern history.
Flynt said the same views that gave root to the Confederate school names has also gave rise to education funding systems that often leave minority children in underperforming and underfunded schools, problems that will remain after the name changes, “What does bother me is when you get to the end of all the name changes, nothing has changed in terms the quality of the education or the property tax base in Alabama, which is pathetic,” Flynt said.