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Racist or history? Majority Latino and Black Texas high school debates changing its Confederate name

“We still learn about these historical figures. They just don’t deserve to be honored," Neil Hernandez, a 2014 graduate of the Robert E. Lee High School in Baytown, said.
The Robert E. Lee High School in Baytown, Texas.
The Robert E. Lee High School in Baytown, Texas.Google Maps

During Grace Rocha’s first semester at Texas State University, she told her speech class that she had attended Robert E. Lee High School in Baytown, Texas. One of her peers balked; her alma mater was actually named for a Confederate general?

“The district should see that people are looking at us differently or making judgments about us — and the school we come from or our hometown — from all over the place because of the name,” Rocha said.

The Texas high school serves a student body that’s 15.2 percent African American and 72.6 percent Hispanic, in the predominantly minority school district. Yet, its moniker venerates the Confederacy's military leader and slave owner who in life ironically discouraged monuments to the Civil War, including Confederate monuments.

Amid the summer’s historic reckoning with more than 1,700 publicly sponsored Confederate symbols across the country, other school boards in Texas have voted to rename high schools that once commemorated Lee. But Baytown’s Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District is lagging behind, despite a legacy of community outcry dating back soon after desegregation.

Now, after a groundswell of calls and emails, the school board has scheduled a vote next month on whether to finally eliminate the Confederate reference.

“No one’s saying that if we remove that name, that we take away your ability to pick up a book or use Google,” Neil Hernandez, a 2014 graduate, said. “We still learn about these historical figures. They just don’t deserve to be honored.”

Agustin Loredo, a member of the Goose Creek School District board of trustees and a Robert E. Lee alumnus, agrees that the current name hurts students and communities. “We’re going to do the right thing, because that’s what we’re about. And we’re about educating kids,” he said. “At least my opinion is we’re not going to continue to perpetuate this kind of subtle discrimination based on something that happened in high school.”

The Baytown school district declined to comment on whether it supported a name change. Susan Passmore, director of communications, said that "Goose Creek CISD is continuing to receive input from the community" and touted the high school's "rich history."

Constructed in 1928,the institution is a legacy of the Jim Crow era, and a push to romanticize the Confederacy, which has often been venerated through similar monuments, school names, highways and military installations. Those tributes represent “a direct act of intimidation to assert that white supremacy was the law of the land,” Lecia Brooks, chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center, explained.

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In Baytown, another local high school’s name refers to Ross S. Sterling, the one-term Texas governor and alleged member of the Ku Klux Klan, while the mascot of the local college, also called Lee, is the Rebels — a term used to describe Confederate loyalists.

“I love my community, but we have some issues that we’re dealing with. You know, I think most of America is dealing with these issues,” Loredo said.

Controversy incites bitter battle

Controversy around potential reforms at the high school has incited a bitter battle in Baytown, as some locals fervently disavow the prospect of change.

“Most of them haven’t even read our American history,” said Marilyn Lane, a 1973 graduate whose family has attended the school for generations. “Blacks, this Black Lives Matter, all they wanna do is tear up stuff.”

“I’m not a racist at all,” and “I have intelligent Black friends,” Lane told NBC News, while simultaneously claiming that “instead of getting a job,” Black people “steal, rob, bust into stuff to sell it.”

Some proponents of the school’s Confederate affiliations have posted vitriolic online comments, including language that threatened violence against their opposition, according to screenshots Victoria A. Marron, a leader of the Baytown Coalition for Change, shared with NBC News.

“The ultimate goal is to shame all of us into submission,” one person said on Facebook. “I will never bend the knee.”

Others don’t see how the name is relevant to the school’s overall culture and fear efforts to change it could open a Pandora’s box of further actions. “You gotta identify the root cause,” Zenaida Flores, a 1993 graduate, said. “And I don’t think the root cause would be the name of a building.”

Advocates of removing the name, however, connect it to a more insidious specter of backwards traditions and unequal treatment that have long divided the community. Decades ago, the now defunct all-female drum and bugle corps, called the Brigadiers, wore Confederate-style uniforms, and instead of crowning a prom king, teenagers were anointed “Gen. Robert E. Lee.”

Ginny Grimsley, a one-time president of the Brigadiers who has tried on three occasions to change her alma mater’s name, looks back on her high school experience with an “icky” sheen. “I feel ashamed that I didn’t recognize it or know it at the time, that it was hurtful to other people,” she said.

She remembers watching excitedly from the stands as a flag bearer ran across the football field with the Confederate battle flag. She imagines her Black classmates and their families noticing her enthusiasm, and “that separating all of us.”

More recently, “taunting” paintings of the Confederate general hung in the school’s front office and hallways, Rocha, a member of the class of 2019, recalled. In a letter to the district’s superintendent in July, the principal at the time, Joseph Farnsworth, wrote that Lee’s “constant likeness on display sent a message of cultural insensitivity and cultural incompetence.”

"Behaviors within the institution ... never fully addressed"

Some of the most vocal defenders of the high school’s name have been its faculty. Randy Sprehe, a U.S. history teacher who has worked there for nearly two decades, wrote in the local paper that he found the potential name change “appalling” and “crazy,” partially because the Confederate general “did not fight to protect slavery” but instead “for states rights,” a revisionist retelling of the Civil War that has been fully debunked.

Brian Walenta, another social studies teacher, wrote in a separate opinion post that if the school board changed the name, “our students and our student body will change … because it will now be all about race and that will be in the forefront of their minds.”

Marron worked at Robert E. Lee as a Communities in Schools case manager from 2008-2012. “I’m not gonna say that the name of the school on the outside as a student walks in impacts them every single day," she said, "but the behaviors within the institution that have built that school is something that never seems to be addressed."

Marron said that she has overheard teachers and assistant principals at the school using “dehumanizing language” to describe students, and that microaggressions routinely target Black and brown people. A kid is a “punk,” “thug” or even “piece of s---,” and teens running up to their classroom as the bell rings have the door shut on them because “a rule is a rule,” she said.

Passmore, the district spokesperson, wrote, "We have no knowledge of anyone having reported the use of derogatory language or extreme punishment in the past."

But Marron said that while "there are really great, awesome teachers out there, there are also bad ones.” The calls for change, she said, go beyond a name.

“It’s about changing the practices within the walls of the institution,” she said. "And by changing the name, it's like making that statement as a district, as a city, as a town, that we will not tolerate racial injustices.”

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