Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Alabama, opened shortly after the US Supreme Court ordered school desegregation in 1954.
Brown vs. Board of Education infuriated White segregationists at the time, and the school, as well as others across the South, were the result of opposition to desegregation. Decades later, controversial structures throughout the South, particularly Confederate monuments and schools named after Confederate figures, have been the subject of debate. Montgomery, the home of the civil rights movement, is no exception.
In response to George Floyd’s death in 2020, many of these school districts across the South and beyond pledged to rename schools named after Confederate leaders. Some have been renamed more than two years after America’s racial reckoning.
However, in Montgomery, a school district with an African American population of 80%, the names Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Sidney Lanier remain on three high schools.
When protesters demolished the statue of Robert E. Lee in front of the school named after him in 2020, Clare Weil, chair of the county board of education, called it a watershed moment.
However, school board member Lesa Keith believes that changing the names would be more divisive than beneficial. “My perception of the whole thing is that it has divided us as a board and as a city,” Keith explained.
Despite Keith’s protest, the school board received enough votes to rename all three schools in July 2020. But not since then, not much happened.
Rev. John Gilchrist, one of the committee’s members, said the committee, which includes community leaders as well as student representatives from the three Montgomery high schools, was formed in April 2021 and members were chosen by the school board’s president.
Gilchrist, whose son graduated from the school in 2015, also stated that changing the name is insignificant unless there is a focus on improving education and the school system.
According to the Montgomery Advertiser, the Sidney Lanier school alumni association was also opposed to renaming the school, claiming that Lanier, a poet who served in the Confederate Army, was inappropriately lumped in with Davis and Lee. Earlier this year, the school board voted to eventually merge Lanier High School with another, removing the need for a new name.
Superintendent Melvin Brown is determined to see the names removed just weeks into his tenure. While he understands some school board members’ and alumni’ concerns that renaming the schools erases history or is part of some White Southerners’ heritage, he believes the community needs to be honest about the complexities of these histories.
Lee was a “brilliant military tactician… He was a slaver at the same time. At the same time, he led an insurgency against his own country,” Brown explained.
According to previous CNN reporting, even historians have questioned Lee’s tactics, particularly his style of leadership on the battlefield and his penchant for unnecessary aggression. He suffered from poor maps and unprepared staff, as did other Confederate leaders, but he also created his own problems, according to historian Joseph Glatthaar, who has written numerous books on the military, including two on Lee.
However, supporters of the name changes argue that understanding how the Montgomery schools got their names is critical.
According to the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Lee High School was named in 1954 in retaliation to Brown vs. Board of Education, which ended “separate but equal” in US schools.
In Atlanta, Forrest Hills Academy, named after Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, has been renamed Hank Aaron New Beginnings Academy. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lee Magnet School is now Liberty Magnet School.
In Montgomery, however, the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, signed in 2017 by Gov. Kay Ivey, prohibits the “relocation, removal, alteration, renaming, or other disturbance of any monument located on public property” for 40 years or more.