Robert E. Lee High School's history reveals complicated past involving Confederate imagery

Published on Friday, 15 September 2017 18:41 - Written by CORY MCCOY, comccoy@tylerpaper.com

When Aubrey Burge moved to Tyler for college six years ago, she was surprised to find the town was home to a school named after a Confederate general with no connection to the city.

During her time at the University of Texas at Tyler and as an employee of the Smith County Historical Society in 2015, Burge conducted extensive research into the name of the school and its historical use of Confederate imagery.

“I thought it was very interesting that a school would choose that,” said Burge, now a history teacher in California, her home state. “In the area of Tyler, it does not fit historically, as far as I can tell, but clearly it brings up a lot of emotion.”

Those emotions were on display recently; during  last month's Tyler ISD board meeting, the name change was a key topic for discussion. Burge was one of several people who spoke at the meeting, which saw more than 200 people in attendance, with a seemingly equal number of speakers making passionate cases for and against the name change. 

Burge used her allotted two minutes to discuss findings in her thesis during her studies at UT Tyler. Given the time constraints, the board asked her to submit the thesis to the board so they could have a copy. 

Because the name issue wasn't an action item at last month's meeting, rather a part of the public comment portion, board members could not respond to comments or take action. However, that won't be the case Monday, when "Naming, Renaming or Modifying the name of any school building or other facility in the district,” is listed as a discussion item on the board's agenda. Any action would come at a later meeting.

The meeting will take place at 7 p.m. at the Jim Plyler Instructional Complex.

A SCHOOL'S HISTORY 

Robert E. Lee High School was opened in 1958 as an all white school during a period of intense resistance to desegregation in many southern states.

In 1954 the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education would see integration slowly start being implemented throughout the country. At the time, the state of Texas was resistant to the changes.

In 1957, Texas Attorney General John Shepperd had selected Tyler as the battleground in his campaign to dismantle the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall defended the organization, but the multiyear legal battle shut down the NAACP for all intents and purposes. 

Little more than a year later, as Tyler Independent School District outgrew its old high school, the board named its newly built high school after Robert E. Lee.

That name came from students, who were allowed to suggest what they wanted the school to be called. The most popular name choices were Robert E. Lee and Benjamin Franklin. Elvis Presley High School also was suggested and the Tyler Morning Telegraph ran an editorial in November 1957 suggesting Alamo High School as a name. After months of debate and input from students, Robert E. Lee was selected during the December 1957 Board of Trustees meeting.

The school adopted Confederate imagery, including the second largest confederate battle flag in the world featured prominently in early yearbooks from the school. Student organizations dressed in replica uniforms of Confederate soldiers and wore costumes with symbols of the Confederacy. 

However, when a federal court ordered desegregation it was followed by the removal of Confederate imagery but the school's name remained intact.

Federal Judge William Wayne Justice in 1970 ordered the district to implement a desegregation plan prepared by federal and state officials. The order's purpose was to create one school system with no discrimination based on race, and it spelled out details of how the district would integrate - which schools would house which grades, which streets would be zoned to which schools, and how the reassignment of teachers would be implemented. A separate desegregation order covered all Texas schools. 

In 1972, Lee students voted to adopt the “Red Raider” theme for its flag and ring, among other items, and left behind the Confederate flag, the rebel mascot and the school song, “Dixie.” 

Tyler ISD remained under the federal desegregation order until 2016.

The district’s demographics have changed considerably since the order was put in place. 

In the early 1970s, TISD served a student population that was 67 percent white and 32 percent black. Today, Tyler ISD’s student population is 46 percent Hispanic, 30 percent African American and 22 percent white. Lee has a minority population of more than 60 percent.

With the recent passage of a $198 million bond package that will see an almost total remodel of Lee and John Tyler high schools, many in the community are saying now is the time to make a name change.

According to a recent survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 109 public schools are named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis or other Confederate leaders. Schools named after Robert E. Lee are the most prevalent, with 52 across the nation. 

At least 39 of the schools were built or dedicated between 1950 and 1970. The SPLC study shows most confederate monuments were built in two periods, from 1900 to 1920 and 1950 to 1970. The first period they attribute to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the second coincided with the civil rights movement.

While there was some public comment during efforts to lift the desegregation order, it paled in comparison to the recent debate over Robert E. Lee, which surfaced after the removal of other Confederate  monuments across the country, including a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, that prompted protests and counterprotests ending with one person killed.

Closer to home, Dallas City Council voted to remove its statue of Robert E. Lee, which was removed Thursday from a city park; the University of Texas at Austin removed three Confederate statues, including Robert  E. Lee, from its campus in August; and the San Antonio Independent School District voted in unanimously last month to change the name of its Robert E. Lee High School following a 5-2 vote in 2015 to keep the name.

Twitter @TMT_Cory