Some Tyler community members push for Robert E. Lee High School name change

East Texas News at 6.
Updated: Jun. 22, 2020 at 6:24 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - An issue that Tyler ISD board members are no stranger to has come back to their attention; changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School.

In a 2017-18 school year board meeting, board member Andy Bergfeld said, “This is probably going to be the most divisive issue that this district and community will have to deal with,” referring to the name change subject.

Changing the name of Robert E. Lee is something the school board tabled in the 2017-18 school year and now community members, students, and petitions are calling for the school board to look at changing the name again.

“We all understand we’re in the midst of a pandemic — one we never saw coming — and we understand we live under a new normal,” said Lester Dewberry, a local pastor with the coalition of pastors for the changing of the Robert E. Lee name. “But, as with everything, as we live under this new normal, we still have to deal with the issues that meet us every day.”

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The group of pastors is hoping to work with the school board on the change.

“I don’t want to give the inference we’re just there to protest,” said Dewberry. “We’re there to lend our voice to what we believe is a very loud voice in not only this city but the country, that it’s time for a change.”

A statement from the school board’s president, Wade Washmon, read:

“We as a board are well aware of the issues surrounding the names of both of our flagship high schools. We have heard from, and anticipate hearing more, from the community on the subject. This time in between school years will hopefully be used to discuss, and find both consensus and meaningful resolution in a unified manner. Our thoughts on this matter will be limited to future board meetings where this topic is on the agenda, and of course during our conversations with community members. It is our obligation to remain poised and reasonable during this time, and we would appreciate your patience as we work, serve, and handle the business of this district while also addressing this issue.”

“We completely concur, we just want to deal with this issue,” said Dewberry. “We want to deal with it in a manner that represents who we are and who this community is. There is nothing I heard in that statement that’s contrary to how we feel.”

Students are also at the forefront of the movement to change the name. One athlete who attends Robert E. Lee wrote a letter to board members saying she will no longer wear the school’s jersey if the name doesn’t change.

Trude Lamb’s letter read:

“I am one of you {sic} true African and 1st generation African-American students at REL. I am from Ghana, Africa where slavery first began. I came to America in 2014. I have stood in the dungeons of the slave castle and seen the three-foot urine and feces stains on the walls where my brothers and sisters were kept. I’ve seen the tiny hole at the top of the ceiling where they would throw food in to the captured souls. I’ve walked through the “Gate of No Return” where over 12 million of my brothers and sisters were kidnapped never to return back to their home. I have worked the very fields and fetched water for my family from the very places my people were kidnapped.

I love and enjoy the sports I play at REL. I can’t be playing sports, supporting, and going to a school that was named after a person who was against my people right here in the United States. He owned slaves and didn’t believe people like me were 100% human let alone ever go to my very high school. I cannot bear and will no longer wear his name on my race jersey. I’m currently the fastest girl on your varsity cross country team. I held that place my 9th-grade year and plan to do the same my 10th-grade year.

I don’t see a future of remembering a person who did nothing for our country and who didn’t care for me or my people. He continues to bring our city down.

As one of your black students, I’m respectfully asking you take up the REL name change issue. Please vote to change the name, not to “Tyler LEE” but after someone who we can all be proud of. Using the excuse that it would be too expensive, is not okay. This town was built on the back of my enslaved brothers and sisters. Do it in their memory and honor the future of their ancestors that are at REL.

I hope you understand where I am coming from.”

“I don’t want to be going to a school that has a person’s name, that he treated black people terribly and he didn’t care about us,” said Lamb.

Many community members are planning to peacefully protest outside of the school board’s meeting and others are planning on speaking during the public comment portion.

Lamb’s mother, Laura Owens said she hopes the people commenting rude things about her daughter online would come to have a conversation with her family.

“The people who have said horrible things like, ‘those kids need to go back where they came from', I really would invite them to come and talk to us,” said Owens. “The way we’re going to solve problems is talking with one another, not at each other. I would love nothing more than to have a conversation, as a mom to an immigrant who is a citizen of the United States and explain why this is so important to our family.”

The name change for the high school isn’t an item on Monday’s agenda, so board members won’t be speaking on the topic.

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