Across America, black girls have to go to schools named after Robert E. Lee. Here’s what it’s like
‘He defended a country where we’d be killed for knowing how to read’
Robert E. Lee, the slave-owning Confederate general who once said “the blacks” were better off as slaves in America than free in Africa and described slavery as a necessary “discipline,” is currently the honorary namesake of at least 19 high schools across the United States.
For over a century, movements to strip public spaces of his name have raged on, reaching a fever pitch earlier this month when a rally of white nationalists gathered in front of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, VA.
Jalisa attended Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, TX, nicknamed the city’s ‘white school’, until 2013.
For years, she walked through halls honoring the Confederate General with students who saw no issue with the name or its honoree.
To Jalisa, the school’s namesake was in direct opposition to everything her teachers claimed they wanted to instill in students. When we spoke recently, she asked me to imagine being encouraged to never stop learning and seeking truth in a building named for a man who waged a war to keep me enslaved.
Jalisa describes a school in which white classmates never gave the name a second thought, while for black students it felt like a daily stumbling block.
Their sister school’s football team is still called the Rebels, and confederate symbols, including the world’s second-largest Confederate Battle Flag and a Rebels mascot, were prominent at her own school’s games while Jalisa was in school.Another Robert E. Lee High School in Midland, TX still proudly uses a Rebel mascot at football games
Black students on the team would quietly protest at the start of games, kneeling during the presentation of the colors to show their opposition. “It put their lives in danger,” Jalisa says, bluntly.
In a racially divided town, the choice to physically demonstrate was a brave one. “I don’t have to tell you how scared a teen would be in that kind of situation.”
The Robert E. Lee High School Wikipedia page claims the school retired flying the infamous stars-and-bars flag at games, but Jalisa says it wasn’t so simple. She says the flag and other Confederate symbols “didn’t go away quietly” — they were eliminated as a direct result of black student protest. “We saw the stars and bars and saw our family’s oppression,” she says.
‘I found myself in confrontations with other students’
For white students at Robert E. Lee, the connotations of the name, flag, and Rebel mascot were rarely discussed.
In class, Jalisa says it wasn’t uncommon for teachers to glaze over the slavery and Civil War section of history class, breezing through it without discussion.
The Confederate Battle Flag, nicknamed the Dixie Flag
“It was treated like an elephant in the room,” Jalisa says, adding that it was a disservice even to the people who supported the name. “The family who fought so valiantly in their eyes had also been lied to. The rich decided to make war to protect their slave workforce and told the poor, good old boys who’d fight their battle that it was for the homeland.”
Of course, many white students like the school’s name and see no problem with it. Jalisa says the most common retort she hears from defenders and apologists is the age-old “the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but money” argument.
Seemingly encouraged by recent events in Charlottesville, some white students are now emboldened in their support of Robert E. Lee dedications. Some are posting on social media about it.
We asked white Robert E. Lee students in Tyler, TX how they felt about their school’s name.
Brooks Melton, a current student at Robert E. Lee, attended several school board meetings to speak in defense of the name. She told babe the town’s namesake, U.S. President John Tyler, was also a slave owner and she fears changing the high school’s name will lead to calls to change the name of the town itself.
“I don’t want the name to be changed because I believe the majority of Tyler doesn’t want it to be changed as well,” she says.
Alum Travis Simenec says those who want to change the name have “selfish reasons” but didn’t elaborate further.
There are currently several movements to keep the name
Tyler resident Angela Mueller is spearheading the preservation campaign to keep the school’s name, petitioning the Tyler Independent School District board to not vote on a change. “We stand united,” Mueller writes in her popular online petition against the change.
Jalisa, obviously, disagrees. “It’s this constant gnawing feeling in the back of your head as a black student,” she says. Though she didn’t create it, Jalisa is currently circulating an opposing petition to change Robert E. Lee’s name.
She told babe she hopes people will be on the right side of history this time — but she isn’t holding her breath.
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