Oliver Hill, 81, grew up in segregated San Antonio. He graduated in 1952 from the all-black Phillis Wheatley High School, named for the famous poet who was brought to America as a slave. When Robert E. Lee High School opened across town in 1958 honoring the Confederate general, Hill viewed the name as a deliberate reminder to black San Antonians that the city did not belong to them.
So last year, when the North East school district board of trustees considered changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School, it seemed to Hill like an opportunity to right an old injustice. He delivered a speech at the board’s August meeting urging the change. In December, after months of public comments and debate, the board voted 5-2 to keep the school’s name the same.
“They haven’t walked in my shoes,” Hill said of those who wanted to keep Lee’s name. “They don’t understand what I go through when I walk past those things.”
North East school district’s debate was one of several explosive deliberations about the names of Confederates on public schools that unfolded across Texas during the last academic year, after the massacre in Charleston of nine African-American worshippers by a man who revered the Confederacy.
When classes start this month across Texas, 10 schools in Austin, Dallas and Houston will welcome students to the new academic year with new names, leaving at least 24 that still bear the names of Confederates.
Of 20 school districts where The Texas Tribune has confirmed there is at least one school named for a Confederate leader, the North East board is the only one that has formally considered a name change and voted against it, according to spokespeople for the districts.
Though the particulars differ, the fundamental issues at stake in each community are the same. How should we evaluate historical figures? Who is entitled to make those evaluations? Where is the line between remembering and commemorating? Can society repudiate the Confederacy, but still decorate public spaces with allusions to its heroes?
And in every case, battles over school name changes have been fraught and emotional, sometimes leading to allegations on both sides of bullying, rescinded birthday party invitations and grocery store parking lot confrontations.
Efforts to rename schools that pay homage to Confederates have made headlines across the country. Public symbols of veneration for the Confederacy have also been reconsidered at UT-Austin, which removed of a statue of Jefferson Davis last August, and House Speaker Joe Straus charged the Texas House Administration Committee with reviewing Confederate statues on the Capitol grounds.
But in the vast majority of Texas school districts with at least one school named for a Confederate, no one has formally raised the issue of renaming.
Last summer, The Texas Tribune identified 29 schools named for Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General Stonewall Jackson and General Albert Sidney Johnston.
The list did not include Confederates such as John H. Reagan, the Confederacy’s postmaster general, General John B. Hood, or Maj. Richard Dowling, all of whom had at least one school named for them in Texas. Of the 29 schools on the Tribune list, five have been changed; five that were not on the list have also been changed.
From Eagle Pass ISD along the border with Mexico, where 100 percent of students at Robert E. Lee Elementary are nonwhite, to Amarillo ISD in the panhandle, Confederate names still sprawl across school walls and letterhead.
“The topic has never come up,” said Mario Zavala, a spokesman for the Denton school district, which includes Lee Elementary. Lee’s website says that the school is named for Robert E. Lee, “a legendary general for the Confederacy during the Civil War.”
Battle for a name
The name-change decision involving the largest number of schools came in Houston, where the school board voted this spring to change the names of eight schools.
Supporters applauded the board’s decisive action; detractors lamented the lack of community input and argued that the board’s decision created a false equivalence between figures like Lee and Davis, and Sidney Lanier, a Georgian best known for his literary work after he served in the Confederate army.
The rancor culminated in a lawsuit against the board this summer, charging that the board did not follow proper procedure and failed to inform the community about the cost of the action.
Adrienne Murry, a Bob Lanier Middle School (formerly Sidney Lanier Middle School) parent who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Houston district, said the board disregarded the wishes of students, parents and alumni who wanted to keep the school names the same. Lanier’s new name honors a former Houston mayor.
“I think we set a dangerous precedent if we start a witch hunt for anyone who served in the Confederacy at all,” Murry told the Tribune. “We live in the South, quite frankly. To say that a man from Georgia wouldn’t have stepped up to defend his land is very naive.”
Rhonda Skillern-Jones, a board member who championed the name changes, is not persuaded by arguments that Lanier’s Confederate service was an insignificant part of his life.
“He was a poet that fought as a Confederate soldier,” Skillern-Jones said. “He’s a Confederate soldier. He fought for the Confederacy.”
Murry’s lawsuit is seeking an injunction to forestall the name changes and force the board to redo the process. After the district’s board approved $1.2 million at its meeting last week to pay for the renamings, interim superintendent Ken Huewitt said the funding decision addressed the concerns raised in the lawsuit.
A ruling in the suit is expected sometime in the next month, according to Murry and Arturo Michel, a lawyer representing the Houston district in the lawsuit.
In Austin and Dallas, school boards voted to rename a single school each — Dallas’ John B. Hood Middle School became Piedmont Global Academy, and Austin’s Robert E. Lee Elementary became Russell Lee Elementary — and only after the school communities had debated the issue and asked the board to act.
In Dallas, students at John B. Hood Middle School had a vote to get rid of the name. Then they had another vote to pick the new name, Piedmont Global Academy. The board of trustees approved their decision.