Lately, there has been discussion about removal of statues and monuments to soldiers and generals of the Confederate States of America. I guess it got a lot of traction with the discussions about the Confederate Battle Flag flying on State property in South Carolina and its eventual removal. The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. has announced it is removing stained glass that depicts the Confederate Battle Flag. Similar actions are happening in cities across the south, New Orleans, Louisville (granted, Kentucky was not a state of the Confederacy, but it was a slavery state), and Birmingham, to name a few.
It’s not just monuments, schools are named after prominent Confederate figures. There are high schools named for Jefferson Davis, P.G.T Beauregard, “Stonewall” Jackson, and so forth. Of course, several are named for Robert E. Lee. I knew of a middle school and a high school in Louisiana. I would have attended the middle school if my parents had not put me in private school during the height of the integration battles in my home town. I did attend Robert E. Lee High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Robert E. Lee High School
It was an excellent school and prepared me well to go to college at Georgia Tech. I was ready to tackle calculus through my pre-calculus class and had two entire semesters dedicated to Shakespeare. Located near LSU, with many faculty children attending, it was expected to have such things.
Age caught up with Lee and it has been rebuilt with all of the marvels of the modern views of education. It is top notch in all ways, clearly.
As it is slated to reopen in the coming fall, the question of its name has been brought up, and a battle is brewing. The battle is the same as the one over the monuments. Is it appropriate to honor Robert E. Lee in 2016 America?
My Opinion on Renaming
Below, with some editing, is a comment I made in response to an editorial in The Baton Rouge Advocate. On Thursday, June 9, 2016, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board will have a forum to discuss a name change.
Some still question if changing the name is appropriate. Absolutely, it is appropriate.
This is not a decision about political correctness or other such distracting mislabeling. It is about ethical decisions and removing a burden for future students.
This is about making ethical decisions in the here and now about whom we choose to honor and whom we choose to relegate to history books and museum contextualization. By naming a school after an historical figure, by maintaining a statue to an historical figure, we are absolutely honoring that person. Indeed, we continue to elevate that person in public consciousness. Robert E. Lee is a much larger figure in the public consciousness than he should be, in my opinion somewhat because of the many monuments and schools named after him. Thousands of students who attended the first version of Robert E. Lee High School learned about him who otherwise would have read about him in a history book and probably forgotten him soon afterwards. How many people know of George Thomas? Patience, you’ll learn a little here.
Whether to honor a specific historical person or not is our choice based on our ethics. In that choice, we make a statement about how we feel about that historical person’s acts.
Robert E. Lee had a choice to serve the Union or serve the Confederacy. He chose the Confederacy, arguing he was choosing based on loyalty to Virginia. He chose to serve the side protecting the right to ownership of other human beings. Other officers in the United States Army had the same choice at the time of the outbreak of the war. Some men from Southern states chose their loyalty to the United States, some transferred their loyalty to the Confederacy. (They had sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, after all.)
If we maintain the honoring of Robert E. Lee with the name of the school we are saying that his decision to defend slavery was quite all right. We all know it wasn’t because owning humans is grievously wrong. It was an act of misguided loyalty. Others such as George Thomas of Virginia who chose to stay with the Union lost all posessions and connection to the family. They are the heros for whom schools should be named. Alas, I can find no record of a school named after George Thomas. (There is a George C. Thomas Junior High School in Philadelphia, named after a banker important for financial stability of the Union during the war, and not the same man.)
The Effect on Students
We should recognize the effect the name of the school will have on students of the school. Regardless of background, there is a heavy weight associated with attaching yourself to a school named Robert E. Lee.
The descendants of slaves should not need to attend a school named after a man who made the choice to defend enslavement of humans. They should not have to deal with the cognitive dissonance of desiring an excellent education at a place dedicated to a man who fought for their ancestors’ continued enslavement.
I am a proud graduate of R. E. Lee High School, class of ’76. But, over the years, on paperwork for this and that I needed to document the name of my high school. As a psychologist, I know that people are influenced by their biases, even when they try their best to not let those biases have influence. How many times was my application downrated just a small amount, enough to move me out of contention for a job or educational opportunity because of the awareness of R. E. Lee as a man who defended slavery? I can never know the answer in any specific case, but without a doubt it happened, because that’s just how the human mind words. The people making a decision wouldn’t even be able to point to why. They’d just say, “I don’t know, I just have a bit of a negative ‘vibe’ about this candidate.”
It would be better to not saddle future generations of high school graduates with that little bit of extra weight in what will doubtless be a competitive employment and educational market.
Pride in a Name
Fix this now. It is both ethically righteous and a benefit to future students to change the name away from Robert E. Lee. A name of a public structure should be one to utter easily with pride, not one that may require a justification.