On August 17, 2015, for the first of what would be three times, Robert E. Lee High School student Kayla Wilson got up in front of San Antonio’s North East Independent School District’s (NEISD) board meeting and demanded that the board change the school’s name.
“Ever since I started going to Lee High School,” Wilson said, “I was shocked to see a public school named after a historical figure who took up arms against his country and fought on a side who wanted to maintain the enslavement of human beings.”
She insisted that, contrary to opponents’ claims, she and other activists were not trying to erase history. “Changing the name of a school is not erasing history…. This is not just about me and how I feel,” she said. “It’s about context ––who we should and shouldn’t memorialize. Who is honorable in the eyes of students who attend this school. I ask for the conversation to be had.”
In June, Wilson started an online petition calling on the school district to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School. By August, the petition had attracted considerable support, accruing over 10,000 signatures. Although the school board had not planned to discuss changing the name at the August meeting, Wilson and her supporters came prepared to press the issue.
Wilson’s demand came on the heels of a revived national debate over the implications of Confederate symbols in the South. When Dylann Roof walked into the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine black people, he did not conceal his motivation, reportedly telling one of the victims of his shooting that he was hoping to start a race war. Pictures surfaced of Roof adorned in Rhodesian and Confederate battle flags; he left an electronic trail of evidence in White supremacist message boards, including a manifesto, praising the Old South and Jim Crow-era segregation. In the weeks and months following the shooting, governors and state legislatures across the South began removing the flag from license plates, state flags, and government buildings.
Yet the backlash to Wilson’s campaign was swift. The school board immediately released a statement that they were not considering a name change. They responded to the controversy by issuing a gag order instructing all NEISD employees not to speak publicly about the controversy.
Following the NEISD board meeting, Sharon Neumann Lee High School class of 1964, spoke with a reporter and recited a line that has defined the pro-Confederate argument for generations: “There’s a heritage there, and to take that name away––and it’s not fair to the memory of General Lee, because that’s labeling him as something he was not.” Neumann attended Lee at a time when the Confederate battle flag adorned every flagpole and football jersey on campus.
That concept—heritage—is more like a river than a reflecting pool. It is constantly changing in course and shape—sometimes deep, sometimes deceptively shallow, but never stagnant. And one’s perspective often depends on if one lives on high ground or in the floodplain. Despite the timeliness of Wilson’s argument, neither this debate nor the violence that spurred it are unfamiliar to Texas. The implications of Confederate memorialization may come into sharper focus after a public tragedy, but it is built into the state’s public institutions and imprinted in individuals’ memories. The question now is not so much what the symbols mean, as if they were imbued with any intrinsic meaning. Instead, we should be asking, how have people who support and oppose Confederate memorialization interpreted and acted on their understandings, and how have those competing narratives shaped places like San Antonio? What does that history offer us as we chart a way forward?
Imagine a three-circle Venn diagram: one circle is labeled “The South,” one labeled “The West,” and one labeled “The Borderlands.” In the middle of those three spheres, in the space carved from the crossing lines, is San Antonio. That confluence has always confounded those who sought to forge a belonging to one region or another. San Antonio resists easy labels, insisting that it remain squarely in the space between definitions.
When Texas seceded from the Union in 1861, San Antonio was the state’s most populous pro-Union holdout. The population of San Antonio, which was majority Tejano (i.e. of Mexican descent) and German, overwhelmingly opposed secession; neither stood to gain much from chattel slavery. But White elites flexed their muscle, both literally and politically, to ensure that Bexar County, in which San Antonio sits, followed Texas into the Confederacy. Texas’s Articles of Secession made the legislature’s intentions all too clear: “maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery—the servitude of the African to the White race within her limits—a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the White race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”
After the Civil War, San Antonio, like every other major city in the U.S, grew to be highly segregated by redlining, racist mortgage practices, and neighborhood covenants: Blacks live primarily on the East Side, Mexicans and Chicanos––Mexican-Americans who fused their ethnic identity with progressive politics––on the South and West sides, and Whites on the North. Though San Antonio’s political elite did not hold onto legal segregation with the death grip of many Whites in the Deep South, de facto discrimination in housing, education, and the work-force was just as prevalent in San Antonio. A 2013 report by Richard Florida of The Atlantic’s City Lab Project found that San Antonio is currently the most income-segregated city in the U.S, with its racial and ethnic residential patterns closely related.
Though the foundations of the Civil Rights Movement both in San Antonio and the country were laid well before the middle of the century, it became clear by the 1950s that it was not going away. Blacks and Chicanos led robust political and economic campaigns to make the city more hospitable for its most marginalized groups. As the movement there became further entrenched, the White population grew increasingly concerned about the imminent prospect of racial mixing. Whites fled north to avoid sharing neighborhoods and schools with Blacks and Chicanos, and the NEISD recognized the need for new schools to serve the expanding suburbs. In 1958, the NEISD opened Robert E. Lee High School at 1400 Jackson-Keller Road, in what was then far north San Antonio. The new high school was unmistakably exclusive, serving the neighborhoods built by White flight.
The suburbs of Castle Hills, Dellview, and Shearer Hills were, before the 1950s, rural land outside the city’s boundaries. In a matter of a few years, “the municipal reform city council annexed land that doubled the size of the city,” transforming the hinterland into the new North Side. The annexation provided space for burgeoning suburbs north and east of Olmos Park and Alamo Heights, San Antonio’s wealthiest enclaves. Investment, transportation infrastructure, commercial growth, and the University of Texas at San Antonio followed white flight to the North Side, reinforcing the income and racial segregation that had already been vigorously defended and maintained throughout the rest of the city.
San Antonio rarely witnessed the kind of belligerent racism that George Wallace and Orval Faubus showed off when they blocked school doorways. White flight to the north of the city, though, and the NEISD’s decision to name a new school after Robert E. Lee, fit squarely into a time and place in which many Whites, threatened by the growing power of the Civil Rights Movement, jumped on the bandwagon reviving the Lost Cause as a political tool. In numerous school desegregation cases, the courts noted that the use of Confederate symbols went hand-in-hand with school boards’ efforts to maintain separate facilities. In one case in particular––Smith v. St. Tammany Parish School Board––the court’s stance was clear: “The Confederate battle flag, since the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on May 17, 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, has become a symbol of resistance to school integration, and to some, a symbol of white racism in general.”
The NEISD did not loudly proclaim their intention to uphold white supremacy. Instead, the minutes from the January 17, 1958 board meeting simply read that the Board passed a vote decreeing that all of its high schools should be named after “national heroes.” Whether or not the NEISD intended to intimidate Black or Chicano students directly through the naming of the schools is unclear. In context, however––segregated schools and neighborhoods, and White opposition to Civil Rights legislation––the decision spoke volumes. Some claimed the decision honored ‘heritage’ alone, but that argument is difficult to square with the circumstances faced by people of color in San Antonio at that time. The 1950s and early 1960s looked a lot like the years following Reconstruction – White nostalgia for a supposedly simpler time in reality masked fear about the threat that Blacks (and in San Antonio, Chicanos) posed to White political power.
According to Vocativ’s analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics, “at least 188 public and charter K-12 schools nationwide are named either explicitly for prominent Confederates or for places named after prominent Confederates.” Texas alone has at least twenty schools named explicitly after Robert E. Lee. The number of Confederate-named schools on the whole is likely much higher, since some are named after lesser known Confederate figures or, for example, simply “Lee” or “Jackson”, with the true source of the name left obscured. Most of the schools were opened and named in the 1950s and early-1960s in reaction to or in anticipation of school desegregation; Lee High School in San Antonio was named and opened only four years after the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education.
If the time and place of this massive swell of Confederate memorialization seems curious, bear in mind that the Confederate battle flags flown above Southern state capitols were raised not in 1860s, but the 1960s. Alabama governor George Wallace, for example, in response to then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s visit to convince Wallace not to fight integration at the University of Alabama, raised the flag above the state capitol there. In the years following Brown v. Board every Deep South state followed suit, whether the flag was incorporated into the existing state flag or the Confederate battle flag itself was flown over the capitol. Schools, public squares, and neighborhoods were transformed once again into proxy battlefields.
In the 1970’s, Lee High’s demographics shifted as Chicano and Black political power gained a foothold in the city and Whites once again moved farther north. According to Rosales, “Many [Chicanos] moved into the transitional middle class communities left behind by the fleeing White middle class.” Upper and middle class Whites once again transformed the city’s margins into exclusive neighborhoods as they once had with Dellview and Castle Hills. As of 2014, eighty-one percent of the student body is Latino (who may also identify as White), twelve percent is non-Hispanic White, five percent is Black, one percent is Asian, and one percent identifies as two or more races.
Where there was once an absence of visible controversy over Confederate symbols, now the school had students from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds who challenged the school board’s hegemony. A 1991 article in the San Antonio Express-News describes a telling scene after Lee High announced it would no longer fly the flag or play ‘Dixie’ at football games : “It was a 45-minute tug of war Wednesday at a flagpole flying a Confederate flag as a group of students pulled the cable to lower the banner while another group gripped the cable to keep it flying.” Rebecca Waldman, Lee alum and retired public administrator with the cities of San Antonio and Alamo Heights, said she had heard that the pressure of two Black student-athletes in 1991 forced the board to make the change, although it's hard to say for sure because there's little evidence.
In June of this year, the NEISD issued a gag order that prohibits any employee from discussing a name change. “The District understands that employees have First Amendment rights,” the memo states, “but such rights must be balanced against the District’s compelling interest by making sure there are no disruptions to its schools.” The memo smacks of the kind of authoritarianism that emerges in moments of desperation. In issuing the order, the Board essentially acknowledged that discussing a name change would be a high-stakes game––it could actually disrupt business as usual.
The Texas ACLU quickly denounced the gag order. “The school district’s professed interest in avoiding disruption must be weighed against the community’s interest in having a robust dialogue on the workings of its school district.” In a phone interview, NEISD spokesperson Aubrey Chancellor told me that “the Supreme Court has ruled that if an entity can establish that there is a disruption to speech by a public employee, then a public institution can indeed regulate that speech.” Indeed, that was the precedent set in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District by the Supreme Court, though, in order for a school board to regulate speech, “school officials must demonstrate that the speech would provoke ‘substantial disruption’ of school activities or invade the rights of others.”
At its core, the issue is bigger than whether or not this debate falls within the Constitutional bounds of what the NEISD can legally regulate. It begs a more important question: If students, and students of color in particular, demand debate, what is it really disrupting? Who is threatened by conflict? And what if instead of muzzling teachers, schools began to treat disruptions of the status quo not as obstacles to learning, but as teaching opportunities?
At the NEISD’s October board meeting the emotions from the prior months spilled over like oil and caught fire. There were tears and shouts, and the board repeatedly asked speakers to contain themselves. The speakers were mostly older people, sharing their perspectives on the enduring racism in the city and crediting Wilson with leading them to new understandings of how historical memory and education are woven together.
Kayla Wilson approached the podium for her third consecutive board meeting. She spoke succinctly:
“This is my third time coming here now and I’ve been given the impression that my request has not been discussed or even considered behind the scenes.... The actions, and/or lack of actions, of the board have created a hostile environment not only for me, but for all those who signed my petition and were accused of being outside agitators. I’m asking that the board put in place a process to review and consider renaming NEISD schools named after Confederate loyalists.”
Some speeches were charged with disdain. “I do not support any name changes for Lee or any North East schools,” said one older White man. “Due consideration was taken in the original process, which focused on famous people who are military or political figures who have direct ties to San Antonio or south Texas. To the people demanding name changes: I am greatly offended that you are offended.” Somebody in the audience shouted, “Racist!” to which the man replied by accusing activists of imitating Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister of the Third Reich.
In the last minutes of the meeting, trustee Jim Wheat from District 4 made a quiet motion requesting a report on how other school districts in Texas have handled the issue. It was uttered almost as an afterthought, but it spoke volumes. It said, yes, this is an issue, one that we would not have acknowledged had we not been pressured to do so. Yes, there is debate, and we can do little to stop it. And yes, a young person, bolstered by the support of community members and allies, can force policymakers to act. In November, the board heard a presentation from a district administrator who explained the process by which other school districts have made similar changes, and a name change is finally slated for discussion on the December board meeting agenda.
Writer Gloria Anzaldúa once proclaimed that “to live in the ‘borderlands’ is very exciting; it is living in the midst of culture in the making. It is a very creative space to be in.” In that vein, activists have proposed that, accompanying a name change, a school can erect markers discussing the change and integrate these debates into the curricula, presenting and interpreting the conflict more fully. One petition calls for San Antonians to “Claim the Name!”, and proposes that the NEISD change Robert E. Lee High School to honor slain Civil Rights leader George Lee or Sheila Jackson Lee, the black congresswoman from Houston’s 18th congressional district. If some can use ‘heritage’ as the justification to cling to a Confederate past, can’t others make an equally strong argument for celebrating the heritage of Black, White, Tejano, and Chicano aboli-tionists and Civil Rights activists who opposed the Confederate cause in all its iterations?
In December, the NEISD board voted five to two to keep the name of Robert E. Lee High School, followed by a unanimous vote to take an official inventory of Confederate symbols used on school property. Although the former decision is likely unsatisfying for those who have worked to change the name, the latter could prove incredibly useful for local anti-Confederate activists and the public in general. In the best case scenario, the data will be gathered by students, teachers, parents, activists, public and academic intellectuals, and community members. Like the “disruptions” activists have used since last summer to force the issue into public consciousness, this process could be an immense teaching resource in schools, at home, and in community spaces. Still, it’s possible the inventory will be compiled behind closed doors by professional historians or, even worse, professional politicians, shut off from accountability. That latter scenario, though, seems unlikely given the foundation that organizers and activists have already laid for a more democratically written and narrated history of San Antonio.
Changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School won’t end racism in San Antonio—it is deeply entrenched, and aiming our efforts its root causes will be the only way to transform the city. This campaign, though, is concerned with more than just a name. It is in the process itself that we find the flash points for challenging power: the debates, the organizing, and the creative reimagining. That process recognizes that San Antonio, a city built by poor people and people of color, deserves public institutions that honor the fight for justice rather than racist violence. Indeed, that organizing from below is the only force that has ever changed San Antonio for the better.