By Coshandra Dillard
Americans have been engaged in a debate over symbols of the Confederacy over the past week. That discourse includes Tyler residents, who are embroiled in a passionate discussion about whether Robert E. Lee High School should be renamed.
The conversation isn’t new. There has been disagreements between supporters of these symbols— whether a Confederate flag, monuments or names on a school— for decades. It has gained significant attention since we’ve seen violence erupt in Charlottesville, Va., the site of a white supremacist rally to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue on Aug. 12.
On Monday, people wanting to change the name of Lee are expected to ask Tyler ISD board members to consider it. The subject is not on the agenda, but the public has an opportunity to speak during the public comment section of the meeting.
As of Monday morning, there are three petitions on change.org with a total of 971 people showing support for renaming Lee. However, another petition to keep the name was also established. It has so far garnered 9,159 supporters. Supporters of a name change say it comes at an opportune time as the district prepares to rebuild both high schools — Lee and John Tyler— following passage of a nearly $200 million bond in May.
Petitions began circulating on Facebook last week, most notably, one that began with Tyler resident, DG Montalvo. He has been extremely vocal about renaming Lee and is receiving much backlash.
Montalvo, who is Hispanic, admits he’s surprised by the amount of vitriol. He said he’s concerned for his family since he has received threats. They’re calling him racist.
“For people of color to be called racist, they don’t understand what that means,” he says. “I don’t have the power or the institutions behind me or history on my side to be racist.”
It’s dividing his church. He says fellow parishioners are urging him to stop the renaming efforts, as it was “making them cry” and “making them upset.”
Montalvo first explored the idea in 2013 while he was involved with educator Barbara Smith’s school board campaign. He said then he supported Tyler ISD’s decades-old desegregation order being lifted by the U.S. Department of Justice if certain conditions would be met, such as renaming Lee.
“We need to have the signs and symbols in museums and highlight them in our textbooks, and teach about them appropriately,” he says.
Benet Embry, a 1989 John Tyler High School graduate who now lives in McKinney, also started a petition to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School.
“This has been coming since I was in school,” he says. “This is not an issue of black and white. It’s an issue of right and wrong.”
Embry recounts the time his mother told him about the meaning behind the Confederate flag when he saw it in a parade as a young boy. She also shared her experiences as a black girl in segregated downtown Tyler.
“She broke down everything to me,” he says. “They said they’d never allow us to go to Robert E. Lee because of what it stands for. Lee fought for the principles of the Confederacy, which was to keep people who look like me in chains. The Confederate reflects a lost ideal, a defeated ideology. There’s nothing glorious about that.”
CONTEXT AND HISTORY
Those who want to rename Robert E. Lee High School say the issue is deeper than people may imagine. Local pastor and Tyler city councilman Darryl Bowdre said he would attend the school board meeting on Monday, and that he supports the effort to rename Lee.
“It’s not only the name,” Bowdre says. “You have to go back to the history of that school. They had to be forced by a federal order to integrate.”
Robert E. Lee High School was built in 1958, just four years after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
This was also a time when the Civil Rights Movement was building momentum. Meanwhile, there were numerous monuments being erected across the country paying tribute to the Confederacy. Texas is second in the nation with the most confederate symbols in public spaces, with 178, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s data.
At least 109 schools are named after prominent Confederate generals and many have a large Black student population. Tyler Lee is no exception. The population there is majority minority: only 40 percent are white.
The ties to the Confederacy are strong in Tyler as its economy was dependent on slavery. By 1860, more than one-third of the population were slaves and residents overwhelmingly supported succession during the Civil War, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
Not only was the high school named after Lee, but it adopted plenty of Confederate symbols, including large Confederate flags, cannons and band uniforms that resembled the Confederacy’s garb. It’s mascot was the Rebels and the fight song was “Dixie.”
In 1970—16 years after Brown v. Board of Education— U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice ordered Texas schools, including Tyler ISD, to integrate as they weren’t in compliance with federal law. Among the conditions Tyler ISD needed to meet under the order were to change Lee’s mascot and get rid of other Confederate symbols.
Last year, that desegregation order was finally lifted. Today, Black students make up more than 28 percent of the total population; Hispanics make up 46 percent, while White students are nearly 22 percent of the district’s student population.
“I hate that race has been an underlying issue that has not been to the surface since the early 70s,” Montalvo says. “I hate that the Christian community pulled their white children out and started private schools instead of integrating schools.”
Bowdre moved to Tyler in 1982. He remembers thinking it was odd that there was so much reverence for the Confederacy here.
“It’s always something that has stunned me,” he says. “As a Black person, it’s very chilling to be reminded. We’ve gotten used to it because it’s been around so long. It’s done to incite emotion and anger and a stark remembrance of the past.”
Bowdre said southern families were divided on the issue, and the reverence for Confederate soldiers and symbols was an attempt to address that divide.
“A lot of this was done to try to heal things, but what (renaming Lee) does is it forces Tyler to have a deep conversation that we’ve never had,” he says. “I don’t know what comes out of it but we have to have a conversation.”
Both Bowdre and Montalvo don’t believe there has been enough progress in Tyler.
“It’s gotten better since the fifties,” Montalvo says. “We don’t have Jim Crow but we do have the spirit of Jim Crow. It’s the same kind of spirit that keeps Tyler divided politically. Black and Hispanic voters can be disenfranchised because of gerrymandering.”
A common response to the renaming effort is that getting rid of Confederate references will erase history. Those who support a change disagree. To that they say it would be appropriate to teach the history and place such monuments in museums.
“Are blind people who don’t see memorials void of history? I think not,” Bowdre says. “We can’t always look to a building to teach us history.”
Montalvo, also a member of the clergy, says he is approaching the effort from a moral ground rather than political motivation.
He asks, “Is your history more important than the healing that needs to happen to your black brother and sisters? If it is more important than healing, I don’t think you understand Jesus.”
Embry adds, “We can never erase slavery but we don’t need to glorify it … You mean to tell me with all of the people who have contributed to U.S. history that the only one you can think of to name schools after are the ones who wanted to keep an entire race enslaved?”
Supporters of the change say there is also hypocrisy in this argument, as remnants of black history, including black schools that educated many Tylerites, remain lost.
“You can’t even find a brick that holds Emmett Scott’s name,” Embry says.
Another common refrain in social media threads is simply, “get over it.”
“That’s one of the most insulting things anybody can say to me about slavery,” Bowdre says.
A MIXED BAG OF OPINIONS
Danesheila Embry, 26, attended Robert E. Lee High School through 11th grade. She supports a name change.
“I feel like it should be changed,” she says. “When I was going there I didn’t really know too much about it. As I’ve learned more about (Lee), yes, I think it should be changed because of what he did and what he represented.”
Michael Tolbert also supports the renaming of Lee.
“There are many ideas and practices that were socially acceptable at times in the past, but as society has evolved and become more civilized it has progressed,” Tolbert says. “It is a fact that the Confederacy engaged in war against the United States. Some seek to ignore this fact in favor of a glorified image of southern heritage and deny that slavery was a motive for Confederate succession. Many other people in these local communities find it hypocritical and offensive to ignore the brutality, rape, murder, and savagery that maintained the institution of slavery.”
Retired teacher Bertha Naomi Freeman, who taught at Tyler ISD for more than two decades, is surprised that the issue is resurfacing now. She said it doesn’t matter to her whatever is decided.
“I was surprised after all these years,” she says. “I don’t know if it’ll help.”
Black people aren’t a monolith and it’s evidenced by the varied opinions about the possible renaming of Robert E. Lee High School. While many agree that honor given to Confederate generals and symbols is offensive, not everyone is wanting to be a part of a fight to change it.
Some worry about the backlash and the safety of students. Others believe it needs to remain to reflect what they feel is a community that embraces or turns a blind eye to racism.
There are also black Tylerites who like the idea of a name change, but say it doesn’t go far enough. After all, they say, there are economic, political, housing, and health issues impacting black people’s lives daily that aren’t being addressed within the community and among elected officials.
“I believe we need to be more strategic and less reactive,” said Jeff Williams, president of Tyler Together Race Relations Forum. “A possible school name change may be something that happens but there are many other steps that have a higher priority, in my humble opinion. Those will affect every disenfranchised group and help build a stronger and more inclusive community. Tyler Together Race Relations Forum has been and continues to work strategically.”
Renaming Lee also brings into question other sites that are named after Confederate leaders and sympathizers, including Hubbard Middle School, Hogg Middle School, John Tyler High School, numerous city streets, and the city itself.
“If you’re talking about getting rid of all the Confederate symbols in Tyler we wouldn’t have anywhere to drive,” Bowdre says, noting that Erwin Street and Gentry Parkway are among the streets in Tyler paying homage to supporters of the Confederacy.
“And what do you do with John Tyler? He was pro-slavery,” he asks.
In fact, John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States, championed the Confederacy. Columnist John Kelly wrote in The Washington Post:
“As president in the early 1840s, Tyler, who was a native Virginian, supported many policies his party did not — states rights and slavery, to name two. Sixteen years after leaving office, when Civil War seemed inevitable, Tyler chaired a peace conference between representatives from the North and South with the goal of keeping the Union intact. When the peace efforts he spearheaded failed, Tyler embraced the Confederacy and urged fellow Virginians to join him. He was eventually elected to the Confederate Congress, which was officially at war with the country he once served.”
Montalvo is starting a “coalition for peace,” an organization he says will be open to engaging the public in discussions about race and educating about white privilege.
“I expect this to be slow and painful,” he says.
In the wake of the threats, he says he doesn’t regret starting this campaign. Nonetheless, he’s nervous about the meeting on Monday. Thanks to support— sometimes quiet support—he is persisting.
“The message is ‘do not stop,'” he says. “Someone told me and they were quoting somebody, ‘speak the truth even if your voice trembles.’ … Sometimes someone has to say the truth. I want to tell the truth.”
Black people who spoke to Liberate say this is a good time to learn our history and become active in fighting discriminatory policies. But Embry believes too many people are complacent.
“We have a lot of Facebook activists,” he says. “They get on there and complain and say what needs to be done, but you see those same people when its time to go vote, when it’s time to go march, and they have every excuse … A lot of black people have settled because, ‘Ok we have a few nice things.’ I think that they just want to go along and fit in. But it’s their God-given right to be equal. We need to stand up and realize who we are as a people and get active.”
Embry says he plans to eventually move back to Tyler and continue rallying for change.
“It is my home,” he says.