In 1954, the Robert E. Lee High School opened in Montgomery, Alabama, shortly after the US Supreme Court ordered the schools to be segregated.
Brown v. Board Education angered white separatists at the time, and schools and others across the South were the result of protests against segregation. Decades later, controversial buildings throughout the South, especially schools named after Confederate monuments and Confederate figures, have been the subject of debate. Montgomery – the birthplace of the civil rights movement – is no different.
In response to the death of George Floyd in 2020, several districts in the South and beyond resolved to rename schools that were named after Confederate leaders. More than two years after America’s racial count, some have been renamed.
But in Montgomery – a school district that is 80% African American – three high schools, named Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Sidney Lanier, reside.
When protesters toppled the Robert E. Lee statue in front of the school that bears his name in 2020, County Board of Education Chair Claire Weil called it a turning point.
“When this happened, it was kind of a wake-up call for all of us that it is time. It’s time to take care of some old business,” she told CNN. “The Robert E. Lee High School was named after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Right after amalgamation, Jeff Davis was renamed in 1968. These were all abhorrent acts, in my opinion, and those names It’s time to change that.”
But school board member Lisa Keith said the name change would be more divisive than helpful. “My impression about this whole thing is that it divided us as a board, and it divided us as a city,” Keith said.
The school board had enough votes to change the names of all three schools in July 2020, despite Keith’s objection. But nothing special happened since then.
The Rev. John Gilchrist, one of the members of the naming committee, said that the committee – which includes community leaders as well as student representatives from three Montgomery High Schools – was formed in April 2021 and the members were selected by the school board president was.
Gilchrist, whose son graduated from the school in 2015, also said the name change is trivial unless the focus is on improving education and the school system.
“It’s much more than just a name change. And then what does a name change promote? What does a name change? Will a name change improve education? Will a name change better protect children? Will a name change help school teachers? Will the benefits accrue to the company increase, better equipment? Will a name change make up for it all?”
The Sydney Lanier School alumni union was also against renaming the school, arguing that the poet Lanier, who served in the Confederate Army, was inappropriately grouped with Davis and Lee, the Montgomery Advertiser reported. Earlier this year, the school board finally voted to merge Lanier High School with another, removing the need for a new name.
Just weeks into his term, superintendent Melvin Brown is determined to look up the names. And while he is aware of complaints from some school board members and alumni that renaming schools erases history or is part of the legacy of some White Southerners, he says the community needs to be aware of the complexities of these histories. Must be honest.
Brown grew up in Lee’s birthplace Westmoreland County, Virginia.
“I learned that history as soon as I could talk,” Brown said. “But knowing that history was not necessarily taught in a complete and accurate way, and given a completely complete picture when I did my own study over the years and got to know both sides of the story.”
Lee may have had “a brilliant military tactic … plus he was a slave. At the same time, he led a rebellion against his country,” Brown said.
According to previous CNN reporting, Lee’s strategy has been highly scrutinized, even among historians—particularly his style of leadership on the battlefield and his propensity for unnecessary aggression. Like other Confederate leaders, he faced poor maps and unprepared staff, but he also created his own problems, wrote historian Joseph Glather, who has written several books on the military, including two on Lee.
“His most serious problem was repeating an error he had encountered in his initial campaign: Lee attempted to coordinate too many independent columns. He placed a heavy burden on himself and his staff. … Lee planned What was achieved in the boldness and aggression of war was reduced through ineffective command and control,” Glather wrote in “Partners in Command: The Relationship Between Leaders in the Civil War”.
But for proponents of the name change, understanding how the Montgomery schools got their names, which they say, is important.
The Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)—a nonprofit with a mission to challenge racial and economic injustice—says that Lee High School was named as a retaliation for Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 , which had ended up being “separate but equal” in American schools. ,
And Jefferson Davis High School was renamed in 1968, just after amalgamation, according to a 2020 EJI report.
“A federal court later observed, however, that the school was clearly intended to serve only white children: it was located in a ‘predominantly white section of Montgomery’, ‘only’ of white students living in the general vicinity. was made to accommodate the number. ,’ and featured ‘a school name and a school crest [featuring the Confederate battle flag] According to the report, it is designed to create the impression that this is a predominantly white school.”
The EJI reports that nationwide, there were coordinated efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to fight the efforts towards racial equality.
The EJI report said, “Many schools were given Confederate-themed names … as opposed to what southern states called ‘massive resistance’ to racial integration of public schools by governors, legislators and other white leaders.” There was a coordinated effort to oppose it.”
Today, the now predominantly black Robert E. Lee High School seniors told CNN that change is long overdue.
“We need to end all ties,” said 17-year-old Zakaria Marshall.
Ariana Brooks, 17, echoed the same sentiment. “It needs to happen now. It needs to change.”
In Atlanta, Forest Hills Academy – named after Confederate general and founder of the Ku Klux Klan Nathan Bedford Forest – is now the Hank Aaron New Beginnings Academy. The Lee Magnet School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana is now the Liberty Magnet School.
But in Montgomery, one of the major hurdles the school board has been delaying is the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, which mandates “the transfer, removal, alteration, renaming, or other disturbance of any monument located on public property” for 40 years or more. refuses to sign. In 2017 Gov. by Kay Ivey.
Earlier this year, an Alabama legislative committee advanced two bills designed to protect Confederate monuments and criminalize people who attempt to remove them. Under one of the proposed bills, the penalty for removing a monument for each day a monument is not restored would increase from a flat fee of $25,000 to $5,000.
Weil said they could face hefty fines if they changed the school’s name without state approval.
“If we can’t get passes from them then money has been collected to pay those fines,” she said.
And replacing everything from signage to letterhead to uniforms would require more money. This is a price tag that the school district hasn’t set.
But as superintendent, Brown says whatever the cost, it will be worth it: “There is no price that is too high for us to help children and their well-being.”