Fight over whether to change name of Robert E. Lee High School leaves scars in Baytown | #students | #parents

It has been 51 years since Elmer Cartwright and a handful of other leaders in Baytown’s Black community first wrote to their school board in 1970.

The district had begun integrating schools several years prior, and Black students, including Cartwright’s daughter Karrie, came home with stories of inequitable treatment and racism they faced. They said it was even baked into the name of the school his daughter was transferred to: Robert E. Lee High School.

They asked the board to change it, but trustees refused.

Last September, Cartwright’s grandson Kevin Craven asked the board to do the same and remove the name of the Confederate general. Again, it refused.

“I never thought I would be carrying this mantle,” said Craven, who now lives in Pearland. “There’s a certain level of irony that here it is, 50-plus years later and we’re still having that same conversation about renaming a school that ultimately is offensive.”

The Goose Creek CISD board voted 4-3 against changing the name of Lee High in September, opting instead to create a committee to study the idea.

On March 1, the group issued its final recommendation: take no action.

GCCISD Board President Jessica Woods said the board has not yet decided if it will put a proposed name change on a future agenda.

Kevin Craven speaks at the Goose Creek CISD’s board meeting March 1, 2021 in Baytown, the same night a committee tasked with studying whether to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School presented its recommendations to the board. The district’s high school is one of only three campuses in Texas still named after Lee.

Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Baytown’s Robert E. Lee High School is one of only three campuses left in Texas named after the Confederate general, according to a Houston Chronicle review of Texas Education Agency records and published news stories. There had been 13 campuses named after Lee in June 2019, but a dozen of those changed their names following protests and conversations sparked by the May 2020 killing of George Floyd.

Debates about whether to change or replace symbols of the Confederacy have been ongoing since the Civil War ended in 1865, said Karen Cox, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of the forthcoming book “No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice.” However, she said nationwide momentum for removing Confederate icons began to change in 2015, after a white man killed nine people at a historically Black church in Charleston, S.C.

“What’s happened since the Charleston massacre is, you have an awful tragedy involving racial violence, people will get upset, people will discuss it and some (Confederate symbols) will be removed,” Cox said. “But there is no common ground between the people who defend these things and those who want to have them removed.”

Those in favor of keeping the Robert E. Lee name in Baytown say the cost of changing it would be better spent addressing more pressing student needs. Changing the name, they say, will toss tradition aside for the sake of appeasing folks from out of town, and will create more instability for students already dealing with the lack of normalcy caused by COVID-19 disruptions.

Kim Caustic, who has six children in the district, including two at Lee, pointed to a Facilities Names Committee survey: 52 percent of 3,421 high school students polled said they wanted to keep the name and 30 percent said they did not care if it changed.

“Let’s get back to the business of the stuff we really need to do, that truly does affect our children,” Caustic said. “The majority are asking you not to change it, so how about we stop taking away what little stability they have and listen to the kids.”

Others, like Craven, say the name honors a man best known for fighting to keep Black people enslaved. They say it serves as a painful reminder to Black students and alumni of slavery and Jim Crow and segregation, and casts the town in a negative light.

Courtney Childs, a 17-year-old junior, said she feels a pang of embarrassment each time announcers say the full name of her school when she performs at regional dance competitions.

“He wouldn’t want me to attend a school that’s named after him,” said Childs, who is Black.

Heated debate

Robert E. Lee High is the oldest school in Baytown, founded in 1928. Black students did not attend the school for another 40 years, until integration.

Today, more than 71 percent of Robert E. Lee High School students are Hispanic, while more than 14 percent are Black and about 12 percent are white.

Students who spoke to the Chronicle said they had heard people talking about changing the name when the school year began, but little since.

“I don’t really care,” said 17-year-old Nyjae Roberson, who is Black. “It’s had the name for so long, I don’t really see a problem.”

Adults in the community have been more passionate on the issue.

In June, arguments began to rage on social media platforms and in restaurants and cafes. Sparring Facebook groups emerged, and community pages focused on Baytown and Highlands quickly turned into virtual shouting matches. At one school board meeting, board members heard about eight hours of comment from hundreds of speakers; at another, proponents of keeping the Lee name filed grievances against trustees Shae Cottar and Agustin Loredo III, who had voiced support for renaming in social media posts and media interviews.

Students leave Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, at Robert E. Lee High School in Baytown.
Students leave Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, at Robert E. Lee High School in Baytown.

Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Those complaints were dismissed, but Loredo, who works as a teacher in Pasadena ISD, said people began calling his principal and district’s school board to complain about his views. He is up for reelection in May, and for the first time in his 15-year tenure as a trustee, he has an opponent.

“If people decide I’m not the candidate of choice because of this decision, that’s OK,” Loredo said. “I’m going to keep working for my community.”

Sarah Graham, who teaches at Lee High and sat on the name study committee, said some neighbors lambasted her for attending a rally where some decried the efforts to change the name of the school.

“They said ‘I can’t believe you participated in the rally, how do you think your minority students view you?’” Graham said. “I hope they view me like they always have — as someone who stands up for them and applauds them for doing right and helps them when they’re doing something wrong.”

Closed committee

The debate did not just get heated in Baytown.

After Midland ISD’s board voted 6-1 to change the name of its Robert E. Lee High School, a group who wanted to keep the name filed lawsuits to recall five of the trustees for “gross incompetence,” said Rick Davis, who was board president at the time. A judge dismissed all five suits in January.

“It was a transparent attempt to seek to remove us for that name change vote,” Davis said. “It was definitely the most hotly debated topic in terms of communications I received as a board member, or have received on any topic — both for and against. And it was in person, by phone, email and text.”

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