Richland High’s Rebel mascot name is under fire. In San Antonio, two petitions are being circulated about Robert E. Lee High School. In Midland, school district leaders issued a statement after the Charleston church killings explaining the history of their Lee High School.
First the Confederate battle flag and now other symbols of the Confederacy have become part of a national debate since the June massacre of nine black worshippers in a Charleston, S.C., church. Photos of suspect Dylann Roof with the Rebel flag angered many, and now communities across the South are wondering what to do about schools, monuments, buildings and parks.
“I think the murders in Charleston have spurred a wave of de-Confederate feeling. I think we are going to de-Confederatize our landscape in most of the United States,” said James W. Loewen, a historian who taught about racism at the University of Vermont and wrote The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The ‘Great Truth’ about the ‘Lost Cause.’ “We will not forget history. We will remember the Confederates, but we will not honor them, and it’s about time.”
One of the first major symbols to come down was the Confederate flag on the South Carolina Capitol grounds. Other efforts are ongoing to remove statues, rename streets and more.
In Texas, at least 20 schools are named after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and at least several high schools use the Rebel mascot.
At Richland High School in North Richland Hills, students and alumni are sticking by the Rebel name, though it is now the subject of a civil-rights complaint. The school quit using the Confederate flag as a symbol of school spirit at sporting events in 1993.
“The school spirit at Richland High School is phenomenal,” said Jack McCarty, president of the Birdville school district and a 1980 graduate from Richland High. “As a parent so eloquently stated recently, ‘Rebels mean choosing your own path and defining your own future.’ Richland Rebels stand up for what they believe, and they accept that being different is OK.”
The Rev. Kyev Tatum, president of the Fort Worth chapter of the Southern Leadership Conference, said it is time to take down all Confederate-era icons and names because they represent slavery and discrimination to many people. He filed the civil-rights complaint alleging discrimination in the district and also targets the use of the Rebel mascot name.
“Schools are changed all the time,” said Tatum. “How about finding some person who did something to bring everyone together?”
Supporters of the names and symbols argue that they are part of school pride and a sense of community.
“No one is being discriminated against,” said Kaitlyn Dillingham, 16, a Lady Rebel volleyball player who will be a junior in the fall. Dillingham’s opinion reflects those of people posting on the “Save Our Richland Rebels” Facebook page started by her father, Thomas Dillingham. The social media page includes an online petition that had more than 4,000 signatures as of Wednesday.
‘No plans to change’
Richland High is among several Texas high schools with the Rebel mascot name.
Others include Amarillo Tascosa, Austin Travis, Evadale, Midland Lee, Ore City and Rivercrest.
About 20 elementary, middle and high schools in Texas are named after Lee, and several are named after Confederate Generals Stonewall Jackson and Albert Sidney Johnston. Houston has a high school named after Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
As of Friday, Richland High was the only campus facing a state complaint, according to the Texas Education Agency.
At Robert E. Lee High School in San Antonio, a student has started an online petition calling for the name to be changed.
“Everyday when I walk into my high school in San Antonio, Texas, I'm entering an establishment named after a Confederate general who not only fought to preserve the enslavement of people like me but fought against the United States — Robert E. Lee,” states Kayla Wilson’s petition on change.org.
Aubrey Chancellor, spokeswoman for the North East School District in San Antonio, said two petitions are circulating relating to the name of Lee High School — one to change the name and one to keep it.
“At this point, there are no plans to change the name,” Chancellor said last week, adding that the only way this issue can be brought forward is on a board meeting agenda.
“The flag is one thing and the name of the school is something other,” Chancellor said, explaining that the school has a large, active alumni association that wants to keep the school name. “It’s one of our oldest schools in the district.”
Chancellor said schools in the district are named for historical figures who had a “prominent” role in history.
“Gen. Lee certainly fits that category,” she said, noting that Lee was president of Washington and Lee University in Virginia after the Civil War.
A part of school history
In Evadale, a town of about 1,500 located 25 miles north of Beaumont, the school district’s website features a crest with the words “Rebel Pride” and the school song with the phrase, “Colors gold and blue; True to all our Rebel colors, Evadale to you.”
The rebel flag is part of a sign outside the high school, and a crest with Confederate markings is inside a high school gymnasium.
Superintendent Gary Fairchild has said that the crest is part of the school’s history and will not be changed unless the district gets complaints.
The school uses the Rebel mascot name and has a cartoon mascot of Robert E. Lee with a hat and sword.
While the Midland school district said there hasn’t been a big push to change the name, the district issued a statement after the Charleston shooting.
“Robert E. Lee High School has long been an example of success in academic and extracurricular areas,” the statement said. “The Confederate flag is not used by the school or the district. The school has a diverse population, and a 50-plus year history of helping prepare business and civic leaders of both genders and all races.”
Elizabeth Gressett, spokeswoman for the district, said Lee High School has its own history. The school’s alumni include former first lady Laura Bush, retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks and former NFL player Cedric Benson. The school has a strong football tradition.
“The alumni and the school programs have a life of their own,” Gressett said.
A complicated history
Historians said the mascots and names reflect a complicated history in the South.
“The Civil War was the biggest war on our soil,” said Steven Woodworth, who teaches a course called “Old U.S. South, Civil War and Reconstruction” at TCU. “It has made a deep impression in the country and our memory. It stuck with us.”
Ray Richey, curator of the Texas Civil War Museum in Fort Worth, said Lee’s ties to Texas (he was stationed in Texas before the Civil War), his military leadership and role as an educator after the Civil War are reasons the general stands out.
“He was a great soldier and officer in the Mexican American War,” Richey said. “He was a great commander in the Civil War. The South had him, but the North wanted him.”
Christopher Morris, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington and Southern history expert, said Lee was a Virginia gentlemen who lived the life expected of him. He fought for slavery and owned slaves, Morris said.
“Our expectations have changed. We need to appreciate that, and we also need to understand why he did what he did,” Morris said. “He was protecting his family, his reputation, his state of Virginia, which was a slave-owning state — the first slave-owning state of the 13 colonies. All of this was part of being a Virginian.”
Richey said it isn’t hard to understand how people may be bothered by schools named after Confederate leaders.
“If our school districts decide to do that [change campus names], that’s fine,” Richey said. “It may not be the best thing for African-Americans to be going to Stonewall Jackson high school.”
Staff writer Ryan Osborne contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675