A Student Feels the Impact of Effecting Change at Lee High School

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Robert E. Lee High School.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Robert E. Lee High School.

Each day at my high school, I walk and learn in the shadow of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general who fought to keep my ancestors enslaved. A 10-foot statue of him greets students as we enter through the front doors.

For me, Lee up on that pedestal is a giant copper reminder that a large portion of the population previously believed, and many still believe, that I am less than. In fact, an entire army was willing to fight the bloodiest war on American soil over that discriminatory idea.

Talk about a distracting learning environment.

While it might be easy for some students, adults, and alumni to put this out of their minds, for me and the other black students I’ve talked to, it is not. If Lee and his army had won, slavery would have persisted even longer. There’s a reason hate groups today use Lee’s name to impart fear and to oppress.

So this past summer, a group of students and I founded the Student Committee For Change. Our goal was simple: to lobby for changing our school’s name from Robert E. Lee to something else – a name that would inspire unity, encourage the student body and promote what we all deserve: a positive learning environment.

When this issue came up on our campus two years ago, I was only a freshman. While I supported it quietly, I admit I was afraid of the backlash that Kayla Wilson, then a Lee student and the creator of the original petition, received. She was saddened by the murders of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., by a man who posed for photos with Confederate flags. It inspired her to lobby the North East Independent School District board, which voted 5-2 against a Lee name change.

As a senior now, nothing has changed for me. I’m suffering the same mean and hateful backlash as Kayla did. My friends are I are getting harassed and bullied not only by students, but by grown adults who seemingly have nothing better to do than comment on teenagers’ posts on social media.

During the summer, the Student Committee for Change met and began broadening into a diverse coalition of students from Lee and from the two magnets and one other school on campus. We reached out to former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who had publicly advocated two years ago for a Lee name change. He met with a small group of us and advised us to think strategically: How might we sway a majority of the members on the NEISD Board to vote for a change?

We thought extensively about how to respectfully approach the board members and explain our position. We personally emailed each board member with a plan of action to be implemented by the district if they should vote to change the name. We met face-to-face with board member Sandi Wolff, who represents Lee and who voted against the change two years ago, and discussed how we were interested in continuing in the safest way possible. It was a meaningful conversation and I think it was Sandi’s advocacy that really opened up the dialogue for change.

Before the vote at the meeting last week, I had told everyone in the Committee to stay calm if it passed. If we jumped up and cheered, I was afraid it could incite anger from the opposition. There were several angry adults there who had already attempted to yell at us before the meeting. Our biggest concern throughout this entire process was the safety of the students and I’m proud to say that was also the biggest concern of the NEISD school board.

Students in the group Student Committee for Change stand upon introduction at a NEISD board meeting to discuss the possibility of changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Students in the group Student Committee for Change stand upon introduction at the NEISD board meeting discussing the changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School.

As it turns out, when the vote was passed, being over-excited wasn’t a concern. I was speechless. I couldn’t move. I believed that we’d get the four votes necessary to pass, but I did not expect it to pass unanimously. I also believe the full impact of effecting real political change in a district as big as NEISD, in a city as big as San Antonio, will take a long time to settle in for me.

I’d especially like to thank all the student supporters and those who worked diligently behind the scenes to advocate for change. The campus of Lee High School attracts a diverse group and that is reflected in my group of friends. Seeing that diversity in the halls each day is what gets me through each day and now I am optimistic that the school’s new name will reflect this.

I also would like to make the point that this is not an alumni issue. This issue is about the students of today.

I understand that alums may have immense Lee pride (BIG RED) and to them, this will always be Robert E. Lee High School. That’s fine. But this is not a school I want to go to. I want to go to a school full of fair, supportive students and focused, dedicated faculty. That is what my school is and I believe that it deserves a name that reflects that.

Since the vote, I cannot count the number of people who have asked me what the new name will be. Frankly, my main concern is not what the name is changed to, my concern is what the name is now. Of course, this is going to be a long process that won’t be finished by the time I graduate. Even so, if I can play a part in the next generation of students at this school feeling better about themselves and taking pride in their school, that’s enough for me.

13 thoughts on “A Student Feels the Impact of Effecting Change at Lee High School

  1. Marcus, I would like to thank you and congratulate you for your courage, compassion, foresight, and determination – a sentiment that extends from so many San Antonians to all of the students who worked to make the name change a reality. You are absolutely right to value the safety and positive learning environment of yourself and other current students. You are a true son of San Antonio. No matter what anyone says to you – no matter who tries to bully you, remember that racism is based and built on fear. As long as we stand up for what’s right and promote safe educational experiences for all people, racism will have a losing battle.

  2. I graduated from Lee in 1975. We were taught that he was an honorable man who, out of loyalty, led the Confederacy against the United States in a fight for state’s rights. This, as I later learned as an adult, was a load of crock. It was a fight
    to continue enslaving blacks, with all the deprivations that meant, including torture, rape and murder. And Lee was no champion: he was, quite simply, a traitor to the US, his nation, because he signed an oath of allegiance at West Point, then turned around and betrayed his country. People may say he
    didn’t own slaves himself, but he inherited over 100 from his father-in-law and to his eternal shame, did not free them. They were given to him and his wife on the condition they be freed after five years. Did he have any remorse, I wonder? In sum, his treason cost more American lives, north and south, than any other traitor in our history. So hell yes, let’s change the name already.

  3. Thank you, Marcus, for this well-crafted, compelling essay, and for your and the rest of your committee’s courageous work. It fills me with awe–but also horror–to think of what you’ve had to endure. That grown adults would act like children–shouting, bullying, even threatening you–is dishonorable and further tarnishes the legacy of this school. But I’m so happy for your success–you’re an inspiration!

  4. You and the committee are amazing- brave, strategic, smart! Sometimes being on the right side of history requires one to walk through adversity, but you will make it through! Keep pressing forward, and know that you have a huge community standing with you in solidarity!

  5. Marcus, you and the committee have done a wonderful thing. Putting aside for a moment the fact of what you did, the way you accomplished it is laudatory.

    As an alum of Lee, I applaud the respectful work you did. From contacting the former mayor for guidance to formulating a respectful plan of action for change to the dignified way you conducted yourselves at the board meeting, you showed us how to get things done. Your behavior makes us proud, especially in the face of the extraordinarily ugly actions of others.

    Thank you for effecting the change that we weren’t able to accomplish. You guys are an inspiration.

  6. I am saddened being an alumni of Robert E. Lee about the name being changed but do understand but why just this school I think that Syndey Lanier should also be changed because he also was a confederate who fought to keep slaves and what about Thomas Jefferson who yes was one of our founding father’s but remember he owned slaves & had children with some of his slaves that he owned so think about tho we schools as well while you are trying to change the name of my alma mater

  7. It’s odd that these NESA students are so traumatized by Robert E Lee but will do a fundraiser for Margaret Sanger’s business of exterminating Blacks.

  8. Am so grateful to hear the perspective of the youth who were involved in this work, and glad that the school board ultimately decided to listen to the students in making their final decision.

  9. Thanks for your thoughtful approach and your advocacy. Many alums, even us older ones, are with you. — Cliff Zintgraff ’81

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