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Plaque at school serving mostly Black students urges them to not 'discredit' Robert E. Lee

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/11/2020 Safiya Charles, Montgomery Advertiser
a sign in front of a brick building: A plaque hangs just inside the entrance of Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday, June 18, 2020. © Jake Crandall/ Advertiser A plaque hangs just inside the entrance of Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday, June 18, 2020.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Just inside the entrance of Robert E. Lee High School a plaque that hangs declares:  

"ROBERT E. LEE HIGH SCHOOL  

BEARS THE NAME OF OUR BELOVED CONFEDERATE GENERAL AND EDUCATOR 

IT WAS HE WHO SAID ‘DUTY IS THE SUBLIMEST WORD IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE’ 

MAY THESE WORDS INSPIRE EACH STUDENT TO DO HIS DUTY ALWAYS 

NEVER BY WORD OR DEED DO ANYTHING TO DISCREDIT THE NAME OF THIS GREAT MAN”

For at least a decade, Black Montgomery residents have raised concerns over Lee High School’s namesake, a slave-owning Confederate general and admitted white supremacist whose legacy they say is undeserving of such an honor. 

Now, as protests against systemic racism and police brutality continue to disrupt American cities more than a month after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, some in the city are raising their voices again — though Alabama’s recent passage of a memorial preservation law will prove an inevitable foil.  

Advocates of change believe the high school’s demographics are reason enough. When the school opened in September 1955, four months after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board decision ordered the integration of the country's public schools, it remained a segregated school for whites only.

an old photo of a person: File photo from 1964 edition of The Thunderbolt. "J.B. Stoner, an Atlanta, Ga., attorney, waves the Confederate flag as he leads a four-member delegation of the National State's Rights Party in protesting the integration of Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery this morning. In the background is the Robert E. Lee statue. © Krista Johnson File photo from 1964 edition of The Thunderbolt. "J.B. Stoner, an Atlanta, Ga., attorney, waves the Confederate flag as he leads a four-member delegation of the National State's Rights Party in protesting the integration of Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery this morning. In the background is the Robert E. Lee statue.

Lee High School is now 82% Black and has been majority African American since at least 2009. The Confederate general’s ideology and actions, reformers say, make him unfit to inspire anything in Black students beyond confusion and disgust.  

In an acclaimed biography written of the defeated general, author Douglas Southall Freeman reprinted a letter Lee wrote to his wife five years before the start of the Civil War: 

“The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.” 

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Robert E. Lee High School Graduation at the Dunn-Oliver Acadome in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, May 17, 2019. © Jake Crandall/ Advertiser Robert E. Lee High School Graduation at the Dunn-Oliver Acadome in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, May 17, 2019.

Reading Lee’s words, Black citizens are left to question just who the school’s administration believed would be motivated by the so-called “beloved” Confederate general, and what exactly about this slave-owning man who saw Black people as in need of instruction through brutality and exploitation would inspire these students to achieve success. 

Though it’s unclear how long ago the plaque was installed the question in some minds is why it remains. Calls to Montgomery Public Schools Superintendent Ann Roy Moore, and Lee High School Principal Antjuan Marsh were not returned.  

When Michelle Summers began teaching in 1999, she could see that the demographics of the city’s public schools were changing. 

a man talking on a cell phone: Michelle Summers speaks during a press conference at E.D. Nixon Elementary School in Montgomery, Ala., on Monday, June 1, 2020. © Jake Crandall/ Advertiser Michelle Summers speaks during a press conference at E.D. Nixon Elementary School in Montgomery, Ala., on Monday, June 1, 2020.

“By the time I got knee-deep in my teaching career it was 50-50, and then all of a sudden there was white flight,” Summers said. By 2011, when she began teaching theater at Lee, less than a quarter of the student body was white, a trend that shows no signs of reversal.  

Summers remembers the plaque that greeted her and students daily at the entrance of the school. In her three years at Lee High, she said she frequently raised the cruel irony she saw in the school’s name to administrators.  

“Historically and ancestrally how do we justify a school being named after this man with a predominantly Black student body? It’s offensive,” Summers said.  

Last month, three African American Lee High School graduates submitted a petition that demanded the school be renamed, in addition to Jefferson Davis High School, named for the Confederate president; and Sidney Lanier High School, named after a Confederate soldier and poet.  

“The generations have changed and so should the times,” said Marche’ Johnson, one of the petition’s creators. Johnson, who ran for a District 3 city council seat last year, graduated from Lee in 2003.  

When Johnson was a student, she remembers a trip she took to visit family in Maryland. Her aunt asked her how she felt going to a school named after a Confederate general. She didn’t have an answer. Johnson described what little she had learned of Lee and the Civil War as "brief" and glossed over. Back then, she said she couldn’t appreciate the full weight of Lee’s legacy and what it meant to her own.  

a man standing in front of a window: Marche Johnson, candidate for city council district 3, is interviewed in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday, March 7, 2019. © Jake Crandall/ Advertiser Marche Johnson, candidate for city council district 3, is interviewed in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday, March 7, 2019.

She believes the current social and political climate has only strengthened the grounds for the removal of these public vestiges of the Confederacy.  

“Many people have tried before, but now the dynamics of the city have changed — the dynamics of the U.S. have changed,” Johnson said. “Why would we celebrate something that’s so negative and so belittling of a culture? 

"If we’re all Americans let’s lift all Americans up.”  

This most recent local battle over who is worthy of public honor may have begun on June 1, when four Black activists toppled Lee’s statue that stood sentry at the school, but it’s only just beginning.  

Reformers must contend with an unsympathetic governor in Kay Ivey, who after previous Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered the removal of Confederate flags from the State Capitol signed into law the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017 — the most stubborn and reliable defense against the will of the people who want to see Confederate memorials removed.  

In 2017, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin found his city the target of litigation after plywood walls were erected around a 52-foot Confederate monument to block its view. The state eventually won that suit.  

When protesters threatened to topple the obelisk during the height of the George Floyd protests in May, Woodfin dissuaded the crowd by agreeing to have it removed once and for all, and did just that. Attorney General Steve Marshall swiftly announced a lawsuit against the city the very next day seeking a $25,000 penalty.  

a bench in front of a building: The pedestal that held the Robert E. Lee statue, that was removed on Monday night June 1, 2020, is seen in front of Lee High School in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday June 2, 2020. © Mickey Welsh / Advertiser The pedestal that held the Robert E. Lee statue, that was removed on Monday night June 1, 2020, is seen in front of Lee High School in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday June 2, 2020.

But a plaque is not a monument, which is defined in Section 2 of the 2017 law as: 

"A statue, portrait, or marker intended at the time of dedication to be a permanent memorial. ... The term does not include signage bearing historical or interpretive text ... or portraits or plaques installed by temporary means and not intended to be permanent at the time of installation.” 

Unlike changing the name of the school or deciding whether to reinstate the fallen general on its campus, simply removing the plaque at the entrance of Lee High School requires no waiver and would yield no financial penalty.

School administrators now appear to be more amenable to the prolonged calls of reformers. At a June 9 school board meeting, board president Clare Weil said she was “personally offended” by the three Montgomery schools’ names targeted in the petition and announced that the body would vote on whether to seek a waiver from the state that would allow them to avoid fines.  

In regards to the plaque, Weil said she had been unaware of its existence and thought it was not appropriate to be posted at Lee High “or any school.” 

a man wearing a suit and tie: Claudia Mitchell speaks as the Jeff Davis High School Youth in Government Club hosts an education Summit at the school in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday January 17, 2019. © Mickey Welsh / Advertiser Claudia Mitchell speaks as the Jeff Davis High School Youth in Government Club hosts an education Summit at the school in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday January 17, 2019.

Claudia Mitchell, District 6’s school board member, said she felt that the issues currently being rehashed should’ve been addressed long ago, but that “many things had come together in this season” that presented a ripe opportunity for change.  

Mitchell’s great-grandmother lived to be 106. She was born a slave but died a free woman. Mitchell said she could still remember sitting beside her, listening to the stories she told about her life, things that she would only truly understand as she grew older.  

“For us to have to endure something like that,” she said. “You would not ask a white or a Jewish citizen to graduate from Hitler High — it's offensive. It would be out of the question. Yet Black people have to graduate from Jefferson Davis" and Robert E. Lee High School.

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Plaque at school serving mostly Black students urges them to not 'discredit' Robert E. Lee


Gallery: 'A Step Forward': Confederate Monuments Officially Being Removed Across the U.S. (People)

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