A majority of members of the Tyler ISD board of trustees said they’re open to changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School, but the matter shouldn’t distract students and the district itself from academic achievement.
Several board members said they want to put aside the issue until the school year is over.
“I saw this coming, but I hoped this issue would move past us or around us,” Board President Fritz Hager said. “And there are many more issues that are more important, that I wish drew a fraction of this community interest.”
But the board is now faced with the issue, and must deal with it in a matter-of-fact way, he said.
“It’s a matter of legal record that Tyler, at seemingly every turn, resisted integration,” he said. “To those who say we should not forget our history, I would say the history of 50 years ago is more important than the history of 150 years ago. (Robert E. Lee had) no personal connection to our city, made no contribution to our schools, and became the face of the Confederacy. … In my opinion, that’s the history of Robert E. Lee that’s most important for this discussion, not the actions and nuances of a man who lived and died 150 years ago.”
Board member Andy Bergfeld also voiced his support for changing the name.
“Is it fair to make African-American children attend a school named for the leading figure of the Confederacy?” he asked. “That’s more important to me than judging the actions of one man.”
Bergfeld seemed to suggest the school could somehow retain its informal name - people have long referred to it as “Tyler Lee” - as its formal name.
“Is there a way to salvage the pride of Tyler Lee, while still having the fact it’s not named after Robert E. Lee?” he asked. “Tyler Lee in essence is its own school.”
The Rev. Orenthia Mason recalled the days when Tyler schools were segregated and urged the board to “do the right thing.”
“This is not changing history, this is making a positive impact today,” she said. “Are we as a board going to decide tonight that we’re going to do what is right? No, I’m not doing a knee-jerk response to white supremacists. I lived through that in the ’60s. It’s time for a change.”
The Rev. Mason 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. “You can’t take Robert E. Lee out of a student’s heart.”
Dr. Patricia Nation, however, did not support changing the name of Robert E. Lee. But when the district builds new schools, she said, it should “choose better names.”
“At this point, the names need to be left alone,” she said. “People should look to their own hearts, not to the name of a school, about how they treat other people.”
Board member Wade Washmon said the issue has become a distraction.
“This is a highly emotional issue, with the potential to divide our community,” he said. “I think the proper time to discuss this issue is when school is not in session, and when it’s not so fresh that our decisions aren’t affected by emotion. The only thing we’ve done by putting this on the agenda so soon is to swat a hornet’s nest.”
Board member Aaron Martinez voiced his support for the name change.
“I think we have a huge opportunity here to test the waters on race relations within the city,” he said. “We can work together as a group and show everyone we can get along and we can move forward. This opportunity is bigger than just us.”
Board member Jean Washington was not at Monday night’s meeting.
A slim majority of the board favored addressing the issue this academic year.
“We have time to deal with this issue, we have time to listen to the community, we have time in terms of the construction process,” Hager said.
Hager said he does not believe the board should wait until summer to take up the issue.
The Rev. Mason said it should be a thoughtful decision-making process.
Martinez warned that the issue could become a factor in upcoming spring school board elections, so there’s a downside to putting it off. It could encourage candidates “whose interests aren’t about student achievement.”
Hager also addressed community concern about cost, saying the most economical time to make a change would be during the upcoming renovation to the high school, with most of the signage being replaced regardless of a name change.
Board members took no action on the issue Monday night.
THE PUBLIC SPEAKS
Prior to the board’s discussion about changing the high school’s name, community members again addressed the issue during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“I’ll give you some practical reasons that it’s in Tyler’s interest to rename our high schools from the names of Confederate leaders,” Wes Volberding said. “It’s good business. The Tyler Chamber of Commerce, the City Council and the Tyler Economic Development Council work very hard to bring new businesses to our city. We should not put our city leaders in the position (to) explain to national and international business leaders why their children would be going to high schools named for Confederate leaders.”
It’s also good messaging, Volberding said.
“It shows that Tyler is not stuck in the 1950s,” he said. “It’s a vibrant, forward-looking community. And that’s true. We don’t want to be the last city to leave the Confederacy behind.”
R.C. “Bobby” Curtis disagreed.
“A company interested in Tyler (isn’t) worried about the name of the school,” said Curtis. “They’re worried about the shape of the school, but not the name. A person who is not from Tyler and not from Texas stirred this up. We’re too good a town and too good a people to get sidetracked with something like this. Let’s focus on educating our children. Lee was a good man. Y’all are good people, please make the right decision.”
One current student at REL spoke.
“No one has asked us students how we feel about the name change,” said Ashley Smallwood. “We don’t need a name change. But we need supplies for our campus. We need copy paper. I assume the name change we don’t need is going to cost money, and there are more useful things that money could be used on.”
But resident Scott Eckert said larger principles are involved.
“It no longer matters how Lee felt about slavery; his name and image have been usurped by white supremacists,” he said. “(The school was) named after a man with no ties to Tyler, so one can come to no other conclusion than that this was done for racism.”
The Rev. M.K. Mast urged the name change, in the interest of unity.
“I’m a child of the South, I’ve lived in Tyler for 40 years, and I’ve never understood why it’s named Robert E. Lee,” Mast said. “It hurts when we go by and see this. It would hurt our white citizens if they went to a school called Malcolm X High School. We should live together as one. To do this would correct past discrimination.”
But Mary Goodson countered that it could be expensive.
“If we change the name, how is that going to change the education of one student in TISD?” she asked. “I’m concerned about the money and where it’s going to. Has any study been done on how much it will cost to change one name or all names?”
Board President Hager said the decision to put the discussion on the agenda was made after hundreds of residents attended the August board meeting to give their thoughts on the possibility of a name change for Robert E. Lee High School.
The discussion began online with thousands of people signing petitions for and against changing the name of the high school.
“Obviously the issue of the naming of schools is one that our community cares deeply about,” Hager said Friday. “I put this item (on) the agenda so the board could discuss it in a public open forum, which is the appropriate place.”
Robert E. Lee High School opened in 1958, just a few years after integration began around the country. However, it would take 12 more years for TISD to integrate, after federal Judge William Wayne Justice ordered it. That federal integration order was lifted in August 2016.
A CLOSER LOOK
Tyler ISD Facility Naming Policy
In naming, renaming, or modifying the name of any school building or other facility in the District, the following guidelines shall be used:
1. A facility may be named after a person who has served the District or community.
2. A facility may be named after any local, state, or national heroic figure.
3. A facility may be named after any local, state, or national geographic area.
4. The Board must approve the naming of all facilities.
A person whose name is considered must have made a significant contribution to society and/or education, and the name should lend prestige and status to an institution of learning.
OTHER BOARD BUSINESS
The board’s regular Lonestar Governance update showed huge growth in Advanced Placement and Dual Credit Course Enrollment.
During a construction update Superintendent Marty Crawford announced that early demolition at both campuses has begun in earnest and a date for a groundbreaking ceremony had been set. Tyler ISD will break gound for the renovation at 9 a.m. on October 26 at John Tyler High School and at 11 a.m. the same day for Robert E. Lee High School.
To watch video of the board's discussion, visit TylerPaper.com.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect more accurately Fritz Hager's stance on dealing with the issue before summer.