Tyler students push for name change of Robert E. Lee High School

Two Fort Worth monuments to Confederate Army officers were dug up for Trail Drive widening and delivered to the Texas Civil War Museum.
Two Fort Worth monuments to Confederate Army officers were dug up for Trail Drive widening and delivered to the Texas Civil War Museum.

It's the summer before senior year and Taniya Jones is working at an ice cream parlor and pondering a future in the U.S. Air Force while balancing the work of grassroots activist in Tyler, where the name of her high school has gained national attention.

Jones attends Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, a city of more than 107,000 about 135 miles east of Fort Worth. The 17-year-old is among about 40 people who want the Tyler school board to consider a name change. They have spoken before the school board and written postcards to board members.

"We hope to at least get a vote to show they are at least listening to us," Jones said, explaining that she plans to attend school board meetings this summer to press her point.

Tyler Lee is one of 100 public schools named after Confederate leaders in the South, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center. There are schools also named after Lee in Grand Prairie and Gainesville. But just this week the Dallas school district changed the names of three schools.

Jones said the campus name was "a name picked out of spite" when civil rights leaders were working to open education to all students.

Jones was among students who recently made local news in Tyler with a renewed push for the name change. The issue had drawn attention last fall, but settled down as Jones and others waited for the board to take the issue up again. They wear T-shirts that say, "BEBETTER" and discuss how to rally supporters to their cause.

In May, the Tyler Morning Telegraph reported that discussion on a potential name change was pulled from an agenda. Supporters of the change renewed efforts during a meeting held last week, according to the Tyler Morning Telegraph.

Dawn Parnell, spokeswoman for the district said it is up to the school board to decide whether or not to change the high school's name.

"They have the discretion to do that or not," Parnell said, explaining the board would have to place the item on a future agenda.

Meanwhile, supporters of the name have since countered with a petition asking that the name be kept.

Tyler's next school board meeting is on June 18. The agendas are posted at least 72 hours in advance of meetings.

This issue of what to do with Confederate names and symbols continues to be played out in Texas communities. Earlier this month, Star-Telegram cColumnist Bud Kennedy wrote about two Confederate monuments that had been taken down in Fort Worth. Last year, Six Flags Theme stopped displaying a flag representing the Confederacy.

The Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the Confederacy become part of a national debate after the June 2015 massacre of nine black worshipers in a Charleston, S.C., church. Photos of suspect Dylann Roof with the Rebel flag angered many, and communities across the South wondered what to do about schools, monuments, buildings and parks that honored Confederate history.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans say that they come to the N.C. State Fair to educate people about Southern history and heritage, not to promote hatred. They meet people, give out stickers and sell merchandise at the fair in Raleigh on Oct. 19, 2017.

"Robert E. Lee is a part of our country's history," wrote one person on a petition to save the name. "You can't change this by removing the name. Better to use this as a learning tool to never allow slavery or mistreatment of any human."

Bu Honor Neal, 14, another critic of the school name, said the school was named in 1958 during efforts to desegregate schools.

"I don't have a problem with Robert E. Lee, himself," Neal said. "I have a problem with the reason it (the school) was named. It was right after Brown vs. Board of Education."

Neal said that move sent a clear message to the black community: "You officially can go here, but you are not welcome."

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.