What’s in a name? Quite a bit. Just ask the alumni of Robert E. Lee High School.
Built in 1927 to meet the needs of a growing city, Lee High School in Riverside joined Andrew Jackson High and Julia E. Landon High as three Jacksonville high schools constructed the same year to replace Duval High School, an edifice built in 1873 as the city’s original secondary institution for white students.
Dedicated to Robert E. Lee on January 19, 1928, Lee’s birthday, the school has established a proud tradition of academic and athletic excellence, particularly in the sport of football, over the past 93 years. As a historic school still operating at its original location, Lee has graduated 92 senior classes and a conservative guesstimate of 35,000 students from its hallowed halls on McDuff Avenue.
And Lee’s alumni, many of whom have gone on to become celebrated athletes, politicians, and musicians, continue to show love for their alma mater, both in spirit and financially. Not only are class reunions well attended, the alumni annually donate the interest from a special fund established to help the school after a fire ravaged its facility in 1988.
So, it comes as no surprise many of Lee’s alumni were outraged when Duval County Public School Board Chairman Warren Jones spearheaded a motion to rename Robert E. Lee High, along with five other Jacksonville schools named for Confederate soldiers.
“I went to Lee as did my father, mother, and aunts and uncles,” wrote Randy Rhoden ’66 in a letter to the school board. “I actually had a teacher that taught my dad. Changing the name makes no sense.”
Beverly Baker ’81 agreed. “I graduated from Robert E. Lee as did my siblings, husband, parents, his parents, and his siblings. I would like to add my name to the growing number of people speaking out against the plan to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School as part of a larger mission to erase the association of Confederate soldiers and officers across the country,” she wrote. “Lee has always had a very strong alumni association, a group that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars after the fire in 1988. I doubt that the alumni support will continue after the name is changed. Please do not cave to the demands of the mob culture. Preserve Robert E. Lee High School.”
Hearing hue and cry from many classmates, six Lee alumni – Norman Abraham ’56, Melanie Amos Love ’79, Robert Lawrence ’80, Joey Stevens ’84, Patti Fraser Price ’80 and William “Pat” Geer ’67 – decided to do something. The grassroots group formed a political committee and website, SavetheSchoolNames.org, to fight the school board’s initiative, and is in the process of raising tax deductible contributions to hire legal counsel to observe the process and file a lawsuit if necessary, said Lawrence.
“Our fight is not against the history,” said Love. “It doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s to maintain our identity as alumni of Lee High School.”
“We will do whatever is necessary,” said Abraham.
Healing a ‘fractured’ city
In a June 16 letter to the Duval County School Board, Jones called for six schools – Robert E. Lee High, Joseph Finegan Elementary, Stonewall Jackson Elementary, Jefferson Davis Middle, Kirby-Smith Middle, and J.E.B. Stuart Middle – to be renamed, and the school board voted unanimously to begin the renaming process.
“We have come to a place and time in the history of our city that we must begin the process of renaming all the schools named for a confederate soldier. This effort can help to heal a city that is fractured. In following the lead of our mayor, who is boldly removing all confederate monuments, it is high time that we do the same,” he wrote. “Renaming of existing schools provides a unique opportunity to further develop an identity of the Board and its schools. Renaming of schools must also support the District School Board’s mission, vision and core values and meet the best interest of the school’s students.”
In a July 7 letter to the school board, District 3 School Board Member Ashley Smith Juarez went further, requesting the board consider adding three more schools to its renaming list – Andrew Jackson High, Jean Ribault High, and Jean Ribault Middle. At its Aug. 4 meeting, the school board voted, 6-1, in favor of beginning the process.
“We began with six schools named for confederate officers. We should continue with schools that are named for people responsible for systematically marginalizing and killing indigenous people. Examining the names of existing schools provides a unique opportunity to further develop an identity of Duval County Public Schools and the Board, including listening and communicating our values,” Smith Juarez wrote.
Darryl Willie, who represents School Board District 4 where the additional schools are located, voted against the plan expressing concern that renaming the additional three schools might “dilute” the focus on racial justice. “I have not heard the need is dire to change these names,” he said, adding that it was not the right time.”
Timing and the high cost of renaming each school are two of many reasons not to rename the schools, said members of the Save The School Names committee. It estimates a cost of least $2 million to change the names of the nine schools, although the school board estimated it could be done for less than $1 million. “It cost $350,000 to change to name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School to Westside High School, and that was six years ago,” said Price, adding that money came from the taxpayers.
“Warren Jones said, ‘Now is the time.’ Well, our theme is ‘now is NOT the time,’” said Stevens emphatically. And thousands of Lee alumni agree with him, he said. More than 2,000 alumni have been in touch with the committee, Price said, and 1,309 members had joined the Save the School Names Facebook group by the end of August.
And the group has other concerns as well.
Jones’ proposal was a “last minute kind of whim” based on the current political climate, which has been propelled by social activism, said Love. “We are very strongly opposed to the name change but not for any social justice reason or any political reason,” she said. “We feel the heritage and culture of the alumni of Lee High School is at risk of being invalidated and erased. Figuratively speaking, an imaginary question mark will be in place of Robert E. Lee High School on diplomas, lettermen’s jackets, class rings, and in college acceptance letters. This is distressing to people who have graduated because we will essentially have an alma mater that no longer exists. This is not about the man the school was named after. It’s about the alumni,” she said.
The group also pointed to Westside High School, formerly named Nathan Bedford Forrest High, after a Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, which was renamed by the Duval County School Board in 2014. Forrest High had a thriving alumni association before renaming, but once the name became Westside, the alumni group no longer existed, said Abraham.
He also noted that colleges and universities associate Robert E. Lee High with quality academics and athletics based on its 93-year history. “You put a new name out there and they will question that immediately and wonder, ‘Who is this?’” Abraham said. “There will have to be some identification with the new name, where there was no need of identification with the old one.”
The group acknowledges that the majority of Lee High’s current student body is African American but does not believe the students have a problem with the name, as is evidenced in their scholastic achievements this year resulting in $13 million in scholarships. “They have Lee pride,” said Stevens. “Someone I know said they stopped by at graduation and saw the students getting their pictures taken by the sign. I’ve never heard of any graduate during the last 10 years say they thought of the school in a negative way. People who keep raising the issue never attended the school.”
Lawrence agreed. “Many of the black students are star athletes, and they would be singing and dancing and doing the Lee High School dance.”
“Many of our graduates are academic and music leaders. I can never remember hearing a minority student say, ‘I would learn so much better if I didn’t have Robert E. Lee hanging over my head,” said Price.
To defray the cost to the taxpayers of renaming the schools, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF) has created a special fund to allow community members to support the renaming effort through tax-deductible donations. “Research shows students are better able to learn when they feel welcome and represented at school,” said JPEF President Rachael Tutwiler Fortune.
The Save the School Names Committee disputes Fortune’s claim that academic outcomes would be improved if the names of the schools are changed. “We ask them to give us some proof that changing the names will influence those positive academic outcomes,” said Price. “They have yet to convince us that kids are not doing well in the classroom because of the name on the sign out front.”
Love added that Forrest High was a C school before it was renamed and is still a C school now as Westside High. “There are 23 schools in Duval County that are D or F schools, and of those schools 15 are not named after any person, six are named after African Americans, and two are named after Confederates. We feel the school board’s motivations are groundless,” she said, noting Lee High and Andrew Jackson High are B schools, Kirby Smith Middle and Finegan Elementary are A schools and, in all fairness, all four should be removed from the renaming list., she said.
The school board’s move is an “opportunistic grab” when there are much greater needs and priorities the board should be focusing on such as readying the schools for COVID-19, improving curriculum, funding teacher’s supplies and higher pay, and infrastructure repairs as many schools are “crumbling,” she said.
Truancy is a problem at Lee High today, the group admitted. With a current enrollment of 1,800 students, the school sports a truancy rate of 33% or 600 students, said Price. “Those students are on a trajectory for failure, because if they aren’t in school, they are probably not doing good things,” she said. “Any money being raised (by JPEF) would be much better spent on a truancy officer and programs to get them back in school. That is what is going to improve student success.”
Although the committee would like the school board to drop the renaming idea immediately, it feels at a minimum Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene should hold several community town hall meetings to discuss the issue and allow the public to have a say. In the meantime, Lee alumni have flooded the school board with nearly 200 letters denouncing the plan and fear many letters in support of their view have never been heard by the school board members.
The committee also wants to raise awareness of the issue by drawing alumni and others to its website, where it hopes to educate people in all aspects of the issue, including dates the school board will discuss the issue as well as other information.
“We want Warren Jones to host a public forum and be willing to field questions regardless of how uncomfortable they are,” said Price, while Lawrence added, “And we don’t want him to have it at 10 a.m. Tuesday morning. We want it to be held at a time when people can attend.” Stevens concurred. “I’d like to see it on a city-wide ballot. It would never pass,” he said.
“We feel our school is different from every other school in the county because we have the resources with the alumni that has graduated and the money that we give back to the school each year,” Abraham said. “This is just the beginning.”
By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News
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