Around 100 Schools Are Named After Confederate Leaders, So What Happens Now?
In the wake of the Charlottesville protests, cities and states nationwide are turning their attention to the controversy surrounding Confederate memorials, which have become rallying grounds for white nationalists. But an overwhelming number of tributes to the losing side of the Civil War can't be removed in the middle of the night. A report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center in April 2016 shows, in addition to hundreds of monuments and statues largely concentrated in former secessionist states, more than a hundred schools from the Southeast to the Pacific Northwest bear the names of Confederate icons including former General Robert E. Lee, former President of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis, and Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
"I don't think it's appropriate to have schools named after leaders in the KKK."
"I don't think it's appropriate to have schools named after leaders in the KKK," Mayor Robert Garcia of Long Beach, California, tells Bustle. Garcia, who became mayor in 2014, took part in his community's effort to change the name of an elementary school named after Robert E. Lee, after the 2015 massacre of nine African-American churchgoers by a white nationalist who glorified Confederate imagery led to national outrage.
"The heightened sense of hate and of the issues around Charleston really brought that conversation forward and it really just bubbled up," Garcia says.
With renewed focus on the issue after violence in Charlottesville, more are expected to follow suit.
At the time the Southern Poverty Law Center's report was issued, Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Long Beach was one of 52 schools bearing that name. Schools named for Lee make up around half of the 109 total schools identified by the SPLC for their names' Confederate origins. At one out of every four total schools, the majority of students enrolled are African-American.
"Whereas decades ago, Long Beach was known as Iowa by the Sea, that is no longer," Public Information Director Chris Eftychiou of the Long Beach Unified School District tells Bustle, calling it "one of the most diverse large cities in the country." More than two-thirds of students at the newly renamed school are Hispanic or Latino.
"The heightened sense of hate and of the issues around Charleston really brought that conversation forward and it really just bubbled up."
Around a hundred miles south, students and parents at Robert E. Lee Elementary School in San Diego fought a similar battle. California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) rallied the community to rename the school, which is also tucked into a diverse, blue-collar section of the state. While California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill authored by Gonzales that would have banned naming schools, roads, and other public entities in the state after Confederate leaders (Brown has said that should be left to local discretion), Gonzalez took to the streets, polling residents — and educating them along the way. A petition from that time reads:
Let Long Beach school officials and the world know that a public school that many children of color attend named after the man who is the nation's most prominent name and face for preserving slavery and treason will not be tolerated.
Nearly 60 percent of students, 40 percent of community members and close to 24 percent of parents voted to rename the school, which was built in 1949. It was renamed Pacific View Leadership Elementary School in the spring of 2016.
That movement, too, was spurred by the murderous rampage in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. Photos of the white supremacist who murdered nine African-Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, holding a Confederate flag and firearms, reignited a national debate over Confederate imagery. Soon after the attack, in a move hailed by her fellow Republicans, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley took down a Confederate flag that had flown over South Carolina's capital since 1962.
In the years since the Charleston massacre, more than 60 such public symbols have been removed. Emboldened by the events in Charlottesville, white nationalist groups have pledged to protect the iconography by resuming protests in that city and beyond.
This flashpoint for removing Confederate memorials comes roughly a century after their proliferation in public spaces boomed. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, naming monuments and spaces after Confederate icons came into vogue during two major periods in the 20th Century: From 1900-1920, as southern states pushed back against Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation after the abolition of slavery, and from 1950-1970, as the Civil Rights Movement swept the United States. At least 39 of the 109 schools bearing Confederate names were built or dedicated during this second wave, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Proponents of propping up the iconography and nomenclature say memorializing the Confederacy is a nod to the nation's history and ancestral pride. To others, gazing at a Confederate flag hoisted around a state capital dome or walking through the doors of a high school bearing a Confederate general's name is an implicit nod to racism or treason.
"The names of schools should serve as models for the children who attend them," says David Goldfield, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of America Aflame and Still Fighting the Civil War. "We've sort of swept this under the rug and there's a lot of resentment on both sides that their histories are being ignored or belittled and I think it's a good idea to generate this sort of dialogue."
Garcia shares the sentiment. "I think the conversation the country's having right now, in spite of the horrible comments coming out of the President and some other members of our community, I think it's positive and I hope it leads to more Confederate Generals and KKK leaders' names being removed from our schools and monuments," Garcia says.
Less than a week after violence in Charlottesville left one counter-protester dead, schools are taking steps to open a potentially volatile debate. In Dallas, the Independent School District — the second-largest in the state — school board officials are reportedly fielding dozens of calls to change the names of schools bearing Confederate politicians and soldiers' names. At least four such elementary schools exist in the district, according to The Dallas Morning News.
School Board President Dan Micciche said in a Facebook post that he will bring the issue up during a September 14 school board meeting. In Prince William County, Virginia, Stonewall Jackson Senior high and middle schools may soon see name changes after an online fundraiser launched with the backing of a School Board Chairman. And, a superintendent overseeing the Oklahoma City School District said she intends to ask the school board to consider renaming four public school named after Confederate generals. In nearby Tulsa, a petition to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School has picked up more than 4,000 signatures.
"No one wants to see Tulsa be the next Charlottesville," the petition reads.