At Schools Named For Robert E. Lee, Students Led The Way Toward Change

Above Photo: Cornelia Li.

“We Won’t Wear the Name.”

Gertrude “Trude” Lamb, 16, describes herself as a shy person. She never wanted to be the center of attention. But, in the summer of 2020, when Trude became the face of a movement to rename Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas, she was suddenly in a spotlight she’d never imagined.

A friend nudged her to join a local campaign and send a letter to the school board, but she wasn’t sure why. Trude, who emigrated from Ghana in 2014, wasn’t familiar with Lee or anything related to the Confederacy. So, she began to research.

“At school, they usually just teach the good part about somebody,” she says. “They don’t teach the bad part.”

A star athlete on her school’s varsity cross-country team, she’d penned a letter to school board members stating she’d no longer wear a jersey that bore the name of an enslaver.

The letter went viral after her mother shared it on social media, catching the attention of the school board and national media outlets. She later courageously read that letter to school board members at a June 22 meeting.

Trude read, in part:

“I love and enjoy the sports I play at Robert E. Lee. I cannot bear and will no longer wear Lee’s name on my race jersey. … As one of your students I am respectfully asking you to take up the Robert E. Lee name change issue.”

Trude said she was scared and incredibly nervous to speak up, but she did it anyway because it was “the right thing to do.” Support from friends and family got her through it.

“I’m also doing it for others out there, other Black people, and it was the time to get it done,” she says.

In August, school board members voted to rename the school Tyler Legacy High.

Trude isn’t alone in her activism. During the uprising of 2020, the impact of COVID-19, police violence and political discord culminated into a perfect storm. Thousands of young people across the country joined others in the streets, at school board meetings and city halls, building on a valued tradition of youth-led activism to demand the dismantling of Confederate iconography in their communities. School boards across the country, primarily in the South, voted to change schools’ names, often as a result of pressure from students.

Young people have always led the way—from the Adkin High School students in Kinston, North Carolina, who staged a massive march in 1951, to the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. More recently, we’ve seen the same activism in Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives organizing.

Students’ activism can lead to cultural and policy change, especially when adults—whether educators, caregivers or community leaders—elevate their voices and give them space to bravely express themselves.

Trude’s teammates and community members had her back. Athletes from her school began posting photos of themselves wearing Lee jerseys that were blacked out on an Instagram account called “wewontwearthename.” Some of her teachers, including one who attended a rally for the name change, encouraged her to keep using her voice.

However, other community members spoke out against change, as they’d been doing for years. And Trude received a number of threats, including one from a classmate who said on social media they’d bring a knife to school.

“I can remember them saying something about I’m from Africa, I’m not from the U.S., so I don’t really know what I’m saying,” Trude recounts. “[They said] I’m just being put up to this, like I have no idea what I’m doing.”

While unfamiliar with the Lost Cause narrative, Trude was very familiar with the history of the dungeons that held enslaved people on the shores of her home country. Seeing a community divided brought these two stories together. She was witnessing, in real time, the residual effects of the transatlantic slave trade.

Persistence and Support

The histories of most U.S. cities have left some of their citizens marginalized or traumatized. In cities where schools are named after Confederate figures, chances are the same names can also be found on other public buildings, street signs, parks and monuments. In Tyler, Texas, Confederate Avenue runs straight through a predominately Black neighborhood. In Fairfax County, Virginia, county officials are still taking inventory of the numerous spaces that pay homage to Confederates.

That’s where seniors Kimberly Boateng and Kadija Ismail demanded that their school board rename their Robert E. Lee High School—a racially diverse school in Springfield, Virginia. Kadija served on one of the school board advisory committees, while Kimberly served as a student representative on the school board during the 2019–2020 school year.

Discussions about renaming the school had happened in the past, but they didn’t get far. In March of 2020, school board members began a five-month process to rename the school. Then the proposal took a back seat to equipping students with tools for online learning.

Students still saw the name change as a priority, however. In June, Kadija started a petition, which earned 1,000 signatures within 24 hours. Kimberly wrote an open letter, which included a link to the petition, and sent it to the school board, the superintendent, the school regional offices and the Fairfax County NAACP. Community leaders, including the NAACP, boosted the girls’ voices online. They also found support in a new principal.

“It wasn’t just like a student outcry,” Kadija says. “It was like the community, the teachers that attend the school, the staff members, the alumni, everyone was just kind of like, ‘OK, we want this to happen.’ And so the added support from all realms was really what helped.”

Kadija notes that some educators and administrators had underestimated how the name affected Black students.

“People didn’t really necessarily know that this was something that was really impacting the students until the whole thing was happening, and people went out and spoke at the hearings,” she says.

In July, facing the added pressure of a national uprising around racial injustice, the school board swiftly renamed the school John R. Lewis High School.

“It put them in a difficult space because they’re giving statements about how racism does not belong in Fairfax County, and everyone was like, ‘Well, prove it,’” Kimberly says. “It was very obvious that if they hadn’t done something about it, there would be backlash.”

Today, Kadija says, students there can say where they attend school more confidently.

“There’s more pride that comes with the name John R. Lewis High School,” she says. “You don’t feel ashamed to say the entire name.”

Kimberly and Kadija learned a valuable lesson through their advocacy: It takes passion and persistence to move people in power.

But the teens note that educators should be more open to listening to students’ concerns before there is outside pressure. They shouldn’t have to be the ones advocating for dropping a Confederate name from a school.

“When they first introduced the forum topics this past year in March to rename the school, I heard one of the school [board] members say, ‘We haven’t heard of advocacy involving the name change,’” Kimberly recounts. “That bothered me so much only because you shouldn’t need a lot of advocacy to change the name of a Confederate general. That’s common sense to me.”

I’m at a point where I don’t feel like we should have to argue a point of why this is wrong. And we should definitely not have to pressure anyone to do the right thing. And the right thing is to denounce the white supremacy that this country was built on.— AMERIKA BLAIR

Why Local History Matters

Last summer’s nationwide protests were more than a rallying cry against police violence; they were also an opportunity to reckon with the history of white supremacy.

That history is still very much alive in Alabama’s capital. At city hall, a seal proclaims Montgomery is the “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement”—right above a proclamation that the city is the “Cradle of the Confederacy.”

Following the police killing of George Floyd—and after activists toppled a Robert E. Lee statue in nearby Birmingham—Montgomery activists decided to confront their own city’s Confederate legacy. At Robert E. Lee High School, protesters, including former students, took down a statue of its namesake.

Amerika Blair graduated from Robert E. Lee in 2009. She and other members of a social justice organization called Southerners on New Ground (SONG) pressured Montgomery Public Schools to rename the school, along with two others—Sidney Lanier and Jefferson Davis. Blair was among those who gave impassioned speeches urging the school board to change their alma maters’ names. In summer 2020, they voted to change all three names.

It was a long time coming.

Blair explains that educators did not spend enough time in school examining the city’s role in national history. As a student, she didn’t realize the impact of that lack of historical context.

“So we—me and my peers—never really took in the fact that we were going to a school named after the Confederate general, and even chanting, ‘Go Generals!’ during our athletic [events],” she says.

She adds, “It’s really a slap in the face. And still … I don’t think we do a good job at narrating the truth behind the Confederacy, the truth behind the birth of America. We fail everyone on that case.”

As Gregg Suzanne Ferguson explains in the 2019 Teaching Tolerance article “Black Students and Educators at Confederate-Named Schools,” these names function as symbolic violence. They undermine the work educators do to help create inclusive environments and unite school communities around common moral values.

To ignore the pain Confederate names bring students, particularly Black students, is to trivialize the terror inflicted on their ancestors and to continue the dehumanization and lack of regard for the dignity of Black people.

“I think I’m at a point where I don’t feel like we should have to argue a point of why this is wrong,” Blair says, “and we should definitely not have to pressure anyone to do the right thing. And the right thing is to denounce the white supremacy that this country was built on.”

Removing a Confederate name from a school name is more than symbolic. A Confederate name on a building does what the Lost Cause narrative designed it to do: remind people that a racial hierarchy reigns in this country. It’s critical that educators have conversations with students about their education, which should include how they’re taught history and their feelings about Confederate names and symbols.

“I want [students] to be mindful of those who will attempt to steal their voice, those who will attempt to make them feel like they don’t matter and what they’re doing doesn’t matter,” Blair says.

What to Tackle Next

Activists are optimistic that ridding their schools of Confederate icons will lead the way to addressing systemic problems.

They all name discipline disparities as a key focus to tackle next. Trude, for example, pointed out that white students, such as the ones who sent threats to her online, weren’t treated the same as Black students, who are punished for lesser offenses.

Kimberly and Kadija note that there is a lot of work to be done around anti-Black racism. While they recognize the need to make school safe and inclusive for everyone, they also feel there should be more intentional efforts to make learning equitable for Black students.

“They have a fear that if we elevate one voice, that they’re not elevating other voices,” Kimberly says of school administrators. “They were afraid to talk about specifically Black people. … They liked to use the word ‘all’ a lot. … I’m like, ‘But why don’t we talk about Black students?’ I talked a lot about Black students and how we’ve got to say certain words. Specifically, right now, Black lives are being targeted.”

Any advocacy for change isn’t just for right now, the young activists say. They realize they might not see the fruits of their labor for years to come.

“I’m hoping I do, but we may not see it,” Blair says. “But others coming behind us will get a taste of it, and they deserve it more than anything.”