Residents spoke out about Robert E. Lee High School’s name at the Tyler ISD board meeting Monday, passionately making cases why the school should be renamed and why it should keep the name it has had for almost 60 years.
More than 200 people packed the Davidson Conference Room at the Jim Plyler Instructional Complex, with 47 residents signing up to speak.
The first and last speakers to take the microphone during the more than hour-long public comment portion made impassioned pleas to change the name, while many others throughout the night urged the board to keep the name, repeatedly asking where it would stop if the board changed the name.
“Where does this cultural cleansing stop?” asked Wayne Jones, a 33-year Tyler resident. “Let’s move ahead yes, but we don’t have to change everything. We don’t have to culturally change our country.”
However, others said it was time to change the name, something they said would move the community forward in a positive direction.
“Change the name of Robert E. Lee,” the Rev. M.K. Mast boomed into the microphone multiple times during his two-minute allotted time. “It is time. How long do you wait? The real question here is how does it affect the students — the minority students — in our school district? It affects them adversely.”
One former Lee graduate said, while she embraced the name and traditions while she was attending the school, she now winces when she sees the symbols on invitations, cocktail napkins and other items at her high school reunions. Kristen Baldwin, former TISD board member and the mother of three Lee graduates, said she and her husband spoke recently with their boys about the issue and learned their friends at college were shocked when they heard the name of the high school.
“Any emotional argument needs to be cast aside and do what is in the best interest of our children going forward,” Baldwin said.
However, others said it would be a shame to change the name that has stood since the school opened in 1958. Some said a change for Robert E. Lee High School would also require a change for the city’s other high school because its namesake, John Tyler, was a slave owner. Others said using that reasoning, the name of the city also would have to change.
“If you change Robert E. Lee, you have to change John Tyler. If you change John Tyler, you have to change Tyler,” said one woman, who also questioned the costs associated with changing the name. “Please consider history is something that happens and you have to live with it.”
Still others said renaming the high school was an attempt at erasing history.
Wes Volberding argued both names should be changed to erase any ‘vestiges of the Confederacy,’ and offered potential replacement names, all of which had local significance — Earl Campbell, Sandy Duncan, Kevin Eltife and Willie Lee Glass were among those mentioned as options.
TISD board members listened to the comments but did not respond. They couldn’t, as the school naming issue was not an agenda item. Rather, it was addressed under the public comment portion of the meeting.
At the outset of the comments, Board President Fritz Hager informed the crowd each speaker would be limited to two minutes and he alerted them as they were nearing their limit. He said there have been lots of examples of communities that have dealt with this issue poorly and urged the audience to discuss it in a respectful way that builds up the community instead of tearing it apart.
“The board has not considered any action but I was pleased with the debate tonight and the level of respect both sides showed,” Hager said after the comments had ended.
Monday’s discussion was the result of online petitions that emerged in the wake of the Charlottesville, Virginia, protest over the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.
Nic Pesina, a local attorney who started the public comments on Monday, said the board had a unique opportunity to “take a step that is almost 60 years in the making.”
“There is never a wrong time to do the right thing,” Pesina said.