The discussion about changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School is over, according to Tyler ISD's school board.
That's a departure from where things stood a few months ago, when board members signaled support for a name change but said they wanted to wait to continue the discussion until the current school year is over.
However, things took an abrupt turn this week, with two board members asking that the name change be placed on a future board agenda for discussion then withdrawing the request days later.
On Thursday, board members Orenthia Mason and Aaron Martinez withdrew their earlier request for a board discussion on the matter.
"Early in life my grandfather taught me what is right, what is best, and the wisdom to see the difference. Today I was finally able to understand what he meant," read a statement Martinez issued late Thursday. "It saddens me that I am having to withdraw my request to have the issue regarding the name of Robert E. Lee High School on the June agenda. We simply do not have the board support."
Martinez did not respond to requests for further comment.
Mason spoke at a news conference earlier in the day, saying she would never support changing the name of the high school as long as she was on the board.
“I would not take away the names of John Tyler High School or Robert E. Lee High School at this time, or ever, as long as I serve on this board,” Mason said, her comments coming on the 64th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools.
In September, Mason spoke during a school board meeting saying, "It's time for a change."
At that time, she noted that she attended a school that no longer exists — the segregated Emmett Scott High School.
"If you went there, Emmett Scott lives on in your heart," she said in September. "You can't take Robert E. Lee out of a student's heart."
On Thursday, Mason again discussed that school but had different sentiments.
“We identified with the school but the school district destroyed our Emmett J. Scott High School by closing it so we no longer had Emmett J. Scott to identify with,” she said. “Why should I do the same thing to Robert E. Lee High School and John Tyler High School that was done to us at Emmett J. Scott?”
Mason said she has had time to reflect on the issue and talk with members in the community, particularly former Lee graduates.
"I have had a lot of evenings of deep thought and early mornings where I have been thinking about this issue," Mason said. "Listening to people just caused me to sit back and think."
Mason said his week she heard from about 20 Lee grads, including African-American graduates.
“There are some who say change it and there are others who say, ‘Why now?’ They believe as I do the name of Robert E. Lee, if it was going to be changed, should have been changed when the school integrated,” she said.
When asked if she had spoken with any current students, Mason said, “I spoke with about three or four graduates around the period around 2014 to 2016.”
Mason also said she’d been in contact with former state Sen. Kevin Eltife about the issue. Eltife said he also has spoken with Martinez and Trustee Andy Bergfeld about the name.
“When the agenda item was placed recently, when it was clear that they didn’t have the votes to change the name, I had a conversation with Rev. Mason about it, and Trustee Martinez reached out to me and we visited today about it,” Eltife said Thursday afternoon. “I have enormous respect for Trustee Mason and Trustee Martinez, and I think they made the right decision to pull it down.
“Frankly, the votes are not there on the board, and the community has heard this issue for the last six months,” Eltife added. “The people I talked to are overwhelmingly against changing the name of John Tyler or Robert E. Lee. It’s time to move on.”
Other community leaders felt differently.
Members of Tyler’s African-American community said they were confused, disappointed and angry over Mason’s reversal of her support for changing Robert E. Lee’s name.
“Let’s face the fact that (Robert E. Lee High School) was built in 1958, and it was built in a response to Brown v. the Board of Education,” Bowdre said. “Those folks did not want integrated schools. I don’t care about rewriting history as much as I do about writing the future. Robert E. Lee the symbol, the desegregation of the past — all of it was for naught. That’s the way a lot of us in the community feel.”
Bowdre said a community meeting has been called for 6 p.m. Monday at South Central Church of Christ, 3425 Frankston Highway.
“The people in the community connected to me, black and brown, know this issue is not dead,” he said. “If this is what our black representatives want, then we may need new ones.”
Councilman Ed Moore said he intends to attend Monday’s Tyler ISD board meeting to address the trustees himself, but made it clear that his concern was as a resident and not as a council member.
“Ms. Mason was the drumbeater for changing the name of both (high schools),” he said. “I’m shocked to see she would not support any name change while she is on the board. That’s a 180 from what she said in (September). I would like to ask her point blank at the meeting what happened.”
Michael McClendon, 31, who has a son in the district, said he was disappointed.
“I think the best sentiment for me is not anger or frustration,” he said. “I think the best way to describe it is disappointment. I’m disappointed in a lot of the players involved. It was a real opportunity for the city of Tyler to come together and make a statement on a civil rights issue, and it never really happened.”
Tyler ISD Board President Fritz Hager said he hoped the community could continue to make progress on these important issues.
"My hope is that now that the discussion of the name change has concluded, the more important conversations around the history of our community and our current challenges will still continue," Hager said in a statement issued late Thursday.