'R. E. Lee' -- Change It, or Save It?

Jul 25, 2018

If you’ve spent any time in Staunton this summer you may have noticed the city is peppered with signs that say either ‘Save the Name’… or ‘Change the Name’.  It’s part of the contentious debate over whether to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School, or keep it as is. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler heard from residents – and students – and got some historical perspective, too.

In early July, Queen City residents were invited to publicly voice their perspective about whether to change the name of Robert E Lee High School. It was an open forum hosted by the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities.

A retired Staunton city school teacher and Lee High alumna got up to say she didn’t want the name to change.

RETIRED SCHOOL TEACHER:  I can’t comprehend how changing the name of a building will affect what’s happening inside. Let’s spend money on solving problems, not creating more. I say save the name.

It’s a widely shared objection among Save the Namers: changing the name will cost too much.

Staunton Superintendent Garett Smith didn’t respond to a request for comment so pinning down a specific number is hard to come by. But … figures floating around are anywhere from a couple hundred thousand to more than half a million. Garrett has said that some of those costs will be absorbed into the construction budget for an upcoming renovation of the aging school.

Longtime Staunton resident Peggy Robertson also got up to speak at the forum.

PEGGY ROBERTSON:  I have to tell you I grew up as a member of the children of the Confederacy, and singing Dixie …

She talked about how her opinion changed from keeping the name to changing it after learning more about the history of the school. It was originally called Staunton High.  

ROBERTSON: I could not un-know what I knew to be the truth. At the time it was given, it was meant to be a weapon of a “lost cause” against the African Americans. It was meant to put them in their place. Let’s change the name and restore it to Staunton High School [clapping]

Robertson cited academic research by Clayton McClure Brooks, an assistant professor of history at Mary Baldwin.

Brooks’ book The Uplift Generation explores efforts to mythologize and deify the Confederacy in early twentieth century Virginia. Groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy worked to control the narrative of the South in the decades following the war. Here’s Brooks:

CLAYTON MCCLURE BROOKS:  They influenced school systems to adopt only textbooks that they approved. They helped approve and control what history curriculum was being taught.  And part of this -- they campaigned to have schools renamed in the honor of the Confederacy.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy successfully petitioned the Staunton school board to change the name from Staunton High to Robert E. Lee High School in April 1914.

Despite this history, lots of Staunton-ites, including current high school students, think the issue is over blown.

One of those students at the forum expressed this view.

HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT:  I’ve not heard anyone at the high school say they’re uncomfortable with the name other than the last couple of weeks …

A few weeks later, a separate group of students got together to discuss the issue in depth. The consensus among them seemed to be that inside the school, among fellow students, the name is not a huge deal—but that itself is an issue. Imani Hankinson is a senior. She’s also black.

IMANI HANKINSON:  You become desensitized to it over time. Like it just becomes something you accept.

Her concern is that the name might make people outside the school community assume it’s not the most inclusive place.

This was reinforced in the run up to the 2016 presidential election. The principal showed up to school dressed as Trump for Halloween and the school’s secretary wore Hillary Clinton in prison garb. It made national news. Fellow senior Tay Burress recalled reading comments about it on Facebook.

TAY BURRESS: Seventy five percent of the comments were like, oh, well, it’s Robert E Lee [High School], what do you expect? As a student in that school, it aggravated me because it wasn’t the first time I’d seen people making that statement.

Tay is also black. He plays sports. He’s not wild about the idea of having to wear a jersey that says Leemen on it.

BURRESS:  If you just take a second to look at it from the outside, just the name “Leemen” sounds extremely wrong.

Cullen Wallace and Marcos Sasia said at first they too didn’t want to get involved. They didn’t have time. They were busy with other things. But listening to friends and talking to people from both sides convinced them it was time to pick a side. Here’s Cullen:

CULLEN WALLACE:  I realized that so many other people were affected that it might be time for me to step up and take a role in this.

A sign reading “But the name hurts…” is staked in his front yard. Here’s Marcos:

MARCOS:  This is my first time to actually talk about it. The background of it [the name] isn’t great and I think it’s time we start writing a different chapter.

The Staunton school board is expected to vote on the issue in the next couple of months.