Tyler ISD board meeting draws speakers from both sides of name change argument

Tyler ISD board meeting draws speakers from both sides of name change argument
The meeting held in the summer of 2016 was well-attended by vocal citizens. (Source: KLTV News Staff)

TYLER, TX (KLTV) - Monday night, the Tyler ISD board offered its usual public comment section to people wishing to express a viewpoint. The section, which is normally restricted to 30 minutes, ran for over 90 minutes with 34 people signed up to speak for and against changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School.

While a name change was not on the agenda, the board meeting was packed to standing room only as the public comment section opened. As speakers began to address the board, the board's president asked for no applause or booing during the speeches, which were restricted to two minutes each.

Those in favor of changing it said the name actively honors and upholds the pro-slavery ideology that Lee's army fought for. They also said that changing the name does not erase history, because "history resides in books and documentaries."

This point was not refuted by those who were in favor of keeping the name, who continued throughout the meeting with the narrative that changing the name would be to erase history. Those for keeping the name also asked the board that 'if the name of Robert E. Lee High School is changed, what else will be changed?'

"If you change the name, you have to change John Tyler High School and Rice Elementary, because both of those names are associated with the Confederacy," one commenter said.

During the discourse, speakers offered possible names to change the high school to. One speaker suggested choosing a name for someone with a direct connection with Tyler, saying, "The Kevin Eltife High School or the Earl Campbell High School," would be better suited.

"If you change the name, I suggest Winston Smith High School," one speaker said, alluding to the main character in George Orwell's book '1984' where part of the plot is driven by the taking down of monuments.

Nearly every person who spoke was a resident of the City of Tyler or had a direct connection with Tyler ISD, whether they were graduates themselves or their children actively attend Tyler schools. Several who spoke identified themselves simply as residents of Smith County.

Many speakers who were for keeping the name of the high school tried to justify Robert E. Lee's role in the Civil War, saying that he was not defending the institution of slavery, he was defending his home state of Virginia. One woman also likened him to being a benevolent slave owner because 'he educated his slaves.'

Much of the argument for keeping the name boiled down to the 'honorable' character of Robert E. Lee. This is a point that was refuted by those who were in favor of changing the name.

"While General Lee had some honorable attributes, the fact remains that he led a violent and failed opposition against the United States which killed more Americans that any other war," Justin Reese said. "A war whose primary motivation was the continued enslavement of our brother and sisters of color."

One speaker who was against the name change said, "changing all of this is a behind the scenes orchestrated attempt to divide the people of this country, pitting black versus white, rich versus poor, gay versus straight, conservative versus liberal and so on."

But the historical context of the name was also discussed. Back when it was originally named, Tyler ISD was still segregated. Robert E. Lee High School was a high school for white students whose team name was the Rebels and who used a Confederate Flag as a symbol during football games. People who were pro changing the name said the name itself is divisive, and the effort to change it was ultimately a thing that could lead to inclusion.

The vast majority of people who spoke were not active students in the district. But several speakers asked the board to consider asking students what they think of the name.

Coming out of the meeting, the Tyler ISD board has not announced whether or not it will take up the issue officially.

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