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HISD Board President backs changing Confederate school names

Fine by me.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Amid a growing move to shed symbols of the old, slave-owning South, the Houston school board president said Thursday that she supports renaming six campuses named after Confederate loyalists.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones said she plans to discuss the issue with her fellow trustees at an upcoming meeting. Superintendent Terry Grier added that he is “strongly considering” recommending that the board change the names.

The nation’s seventh-largest school district would join a mounting list of agencies and businesses taking steps to shun reminders of the Confederacy following the June 17 shooting deaths of nine black church worshippers by an alleged white supremacist in Charleston, S.C.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, sent a letter to the Houston Independent School District Wednesday urging the renaming of six campuses named after Confederate army officers or others tied to the Confederacy: Dowling, Jackson and Johnston middle schools and Davis, Lee and Reagan high schools.

“Remembering our past is important, especially if you want to avoid making the same mistakes,” Ellis wrote. “But we can teach our students about the evils of the past without endorsing the actions of those who fought to uphold them. When we honor hate at our schools, we teach hate to our children.”

Ellis previously urged HISD to eradicate certain mascots. In 2013, the school board, at Grier’s recommendation, agreed to abandon the Rebels mascot, a symbol tied to the Confederacy, and three others considered offensive to Native Americans.

“Just as we engaged in the important work around changing the inappropriate mascots,” Skillern-Jones said, “we should also engage in that equally important work around making sure that our schools are named after individuals that wholeheartedly represent what our district stands for and the diversity in the district.”

Here are the op-ed and letter that Sen. Ellis wrote. This conversation isn’t just happening in Houston, as cities like Austin and San Antonio have Robert E. Lee schools as well. Lee is a legitimately important historical figure with ties to Texas that predate the Civil War, but that doesn’t mean he – or any other figure – deserves to have schools named after him. As with the school mascots that got renamed last year, I see no reason not to take this seriously. And as with the mascots, I expect there will be some heated dissent, from current and former students of these schools as well as other folks with various motives, and if the decision is made to make a change then a year or two from now hardly anyone will remember any of it.

You may ask, why now? These schools have been around with these names for a long time. As with the mascots and with the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage, the time is right. The horrible mass shooting in South Carolina and the stated reasons for it by the shooter have opened the door for this conversation, and many people who would not have been amenable to it for whatever the reason a month or a year or a decade ago now are. Why not now?

And if we start this conversation about Confederate generals, what then?

I wonder if they are going to include slave owners from the past. How about those that supported segregation or opposed civil rights and voting rights. How about some of the folks that help found the state of Texas and nearly succeeded in making Native-Americans an extinct people. These same folks also made Texas a slave-owning state. How does one define hate? I wonder where they will draw the line. I am glad Board President Skillern-Jones and Sen. Ellis are the deciders and not me. Go for it!

I’m sure plenty of people will be making “slippery slope” arguments now that this can of worms has been opened. I get that, but you know what? I do not and will not accept such arguments as a reason to end the conversation. Nothing in the Constitution says that once a school – or park, or bridge, or street, or courthouse, or whatever – has been named for someone, it must remain named for that person forevermore. Let’s have this conversation, in full and in public. I welcome it, and I welcome the awkwardness that a lot of people, including myself, will feel about it. You want to move past the symbolism of a handful of governors lowering the Confederate flag in their states? This would be a fine place to start. Let’s get it all out there. What are we afraid of?

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4 Comments

  1. General Grant says:

    The sentiment of such movements is correct. Noble, even. The problem is that it is ahistorical.

    U.S. Grant wrote of Lee’s surrender that “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”

    I do not think anyone since has said it better. The cause of the Confederacy was abhorrent. It should certainly not have any official sanction today. The Confederate flag should have disappeared a long time ago, especially since that symbol belonged more to the segregationists of the 1950’s more than it ever did to the Confederacy of the 1860’s.

    But, whitewashing names is not true to history because that’s not how the victors reacted when the Civil War was over. When the Army of Northern Virginia laid down their arms, the Union Army saluted them. Literally. President Lincoln asked that the band played Dixie. It was, he said, “one of the finest tunes I’ve ever heard.” The men of the South weren’t hanged, instead they were sent back to their homes to be the best citizens they could and rebuild their broken society.

    Victors, it is famously said, write the history. The American Civil War is unique in the annals of history in the amount of respect that the victors gave the vanquished. It is at least worth asking why that is. I think on some level they understood that the problem was a systemic one that belonged to multiple generations of Americans, both North and South. It wasn’t just something that could be excised with a few people.

    So how would Lincoln, Grant, and the Northern victors look upon modern efforts to trash the names and legacies of the Confederate figures? I think you can argue very strongly that they would oppose them. Should bind us today? No. But, it does illustrate that the issue isn’t simple.

    Nobody did more than Robert E. Lee to ensure that the South accepted the new Union. He had the power, more than anybody, to do otherwise. He rejected out of hand the idea of a guerilla insurrection. Had he chosen to pursue that path we may very well still be fighting.

    The Confederacy wasn’t just a bunch of random racists. It was the inevitable result of the compromises that formed our Constitution. For an American of that era, it was natural for loyalty to his state to come before that to his nation. After all, Americans of that time referred to the United States in the plural, “the United States are”. Lee himself opposed secession, but could not “draw his sword against my country (meaning Virginia).”

    You are incorrect in so flippantly dismissing what you call the “slippery slope” argument, because if you don’t identify what exactly it is you are against you can’t have a meaningful conversation about it. Are you against racists? Well, then you’re against basically everybody before the last 50 years or so, even Abraham Lincoln. Are you against those who fought against what you consider to be their country? Well, then what about the Texans who fought against Mexico? Are you against secession to preserve slavery and a racist society? Again, the Texas Revolution was that very thing, so perhaps the Lone Star flag should be junked. And if you’re against the Confederacy, what about Thomas Jefferson? He, along with James Madison, developed the intellectual foundation of state’s rights, nullification, and the Confederacy. It’s a straight line from Jefferson to John C. Calhoun, to Jefferson Davis. Are pro-slavery Unionists like Sam Houston okay?

    Simply saying, as Senator Ellis does, that you are against “hate” is lazy and sloppy, because if you want, you can find hate anywhere. That’s part of being human. Bill Clinton signed legislation enshrining discrimination against gays. Barack Obama ran for President opposing gay marriage because “God is in the mix” (no, I don’t believe he was sincere about that, but he still said it, and it is still offensive to both gays and people of faith). Is that “hate”?

    Every few years, the State Board of Education does its best to promote the lazy teaching of history by trying to whitewash things they don’t like. This is wrong, and it’s dangerous. To go about removing names like this without a clear identification of what it is we are trying to erase smacks of the same kind of lazy history I really think our schools should aspire to overcome.

  2. brad says:

    My alma mater is Robert E. Lee High School (now just Lee High School) here in Houston.

    I am glad to see the confederacy imagery gone. Not sure I agree with the truncation of the name of the high school to just Lee High School.

  3. Temple Houston says:

    I believe Tyler and Midland also have high schools named after Robert E. Lee. There’s probably no chance those schools would be renamed.

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