HOUSTON (AP) – Texas’ largest school district has joined the national debate over whether communities should cut their ties to the Confederacy by renaming buildings or removing monuments.
The Houston Independent School District board voted 5-4 on Thursday night to rename four campuses named after Robert E. Lee or others linked to the Confederacy.
The board issued a statement afterward saying the decision was made “in order to represent the values and diversity of the school district,” which has about 215,000 students at 283 schools.
Robert E. Lee High School plus three middle schools – Henry Grady, Richard Dowling and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson – will get new names to be proposed by a committee from each campus. Four other schools that had also been on the name change list were pulled to allow trustees time to discuss the issue with communities from those campuses.
Confederate symbols nationwide are facing review over concerns about racism. The issue came to the forefront last June when a White supremacist killed nine Black parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. After the attack, South Carolina lawmakers removed the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds. Cities in other states, including Arkansas, Tennessee and Virginia, have also debated similar changes.
“I think it’s important to realize that even before Charleston, we had some pretty highly publicized incidents of African Americans pushing for changes in the way we as an American society deal with African American expression and African American memories and the role of White supremacy in our culture,” said Derek Alderman, a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee who last year began a project to map Confederate symbolism nationwide.
The mapping project by Alderman and Russell Weaver, a geographer at Texas State University, has identified at least 872 parks, natural features, schools, streets and other locations in 44 states named after major Confederate leaders.
Discussion on renaming buildings or removing monuments with ties to the Confederacy can be emotionally and politically charged, as happened in New Orleans last month when leaders voted to remove prominent Confederate monuments from city streets.
During Thursday’s Houston school board meeting, the discussion stayed mainly calm, with most of the people who spoke during a nearly 80-minute public comment period saying they were against the name change.
Nick Harris, a 1996 graduate of Jefferson Davis High School – one of the campuses that was pulled from the name change list – told board members they should not focus on his alma mater’s name but on the students who have graduated over the years and contributed to Houston.
“My biggest issue is: What’s the importance of changing the name? We need to worry about building the school,” he said.
But Hany Khalil, with Community Voices for Public Education, a Houston group that advocates community-led school reform and supports the name changes, said school names “should reflect the values we hold dear today.”
“I don’t think my vote represents pro-celebration of the Confederacy at all,” said Anna Eastman, one of the four board members who voted against the name change.
Alderman said any removal of a Confederacy-linked name needs to be done as part of a larger discussion about the legacy of White supremacy, slavery and racism.
“In some cases the struggle over the renaming has sparked a useful discussion of how do we remember this person and can we come to terms with the things they carried out in the past and the context of what we presently believe as a society,” Alderman said.