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Changing the Name and Narrative: Students lead movement to rename schools honoring Confederate leaders

Gertrude “Trude” Lamb is a star athlete on her track team at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas.

A native of Ghana who came to the U.S. seven years ago, the 16-year-old didn’t know much about the Civil War – or about the Confederate general for whom her school was named. But she was familiar with the dungeons that once held enslaved people along the shores of her home country.

Last summer, after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis sparked renewed efforts to remove Confederate monuments and other symbols from public spaces, she learned more. And she took a stand, joining other students in demanding that the school be renamed.

Lamb, whose story is featured in the latest issue of the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance magazine, wrote a letter to the school board saying she would no longer wear a school jersey that bore the name of an enslaver. Teaching Tolerance magazine is a publication of the SPLC’s Learning for Justice program.

“I love and enjoy the sports I play at Robert E. Lee,” she wrote. “I cannot bear and will no longer wear Lee’s name on my race jersey. … As one of your students I am respectfully asking you to take up the Robert E. Lee name change issue.”

Her letter went viral and caught the attention of national media. On an Instagram account called “wewontwearthename,” other athletes from the school posted pictures of themselves wearing jerseys with the name Lee blacked out.

In August, the students won their campaign and the school was renamed Tyler Legacy High School.

Their success is being repeated across the country. 

As Coshandra Dillard writes for the magazine: “During the uprising of 2020, the impact of COVID-19, police violence and political discord culminated into a perfect storm. Thousands of young people across the country joined others in the streets, at school board meetings and city halls, building on a valued tradition of youth-led activism to demand the dismantling of Confederate iconography in their communities. School boards across the country, primarily in the South, voted to change schools’ names, often as a result of pressure from students.”

The SPLC’s 2019 Whose Heritage? report identified 103 public schools and three colleges named for Lee and other Confederate leaders, including at least 34 that were built or dedicated from 1950 to 1970, a period encompassing the civil rights movement.

In Montgomery, Alabama, the first capital of the Confederacy, students and other advocates persuaded the school board to change the names of three high schools named for Lee, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Sidney Lanier, a Confederate soldier.

“Removing a Confederate name from a school name is more than symbolic,” Dillard writes. “A Confederate name on a building does what the Lost Cause narrative designed it to do: remind people that a racial hierarchy reigns in this country. It’s critical that educators have conversations with students about their education, which should include how they’re taught history and their feelings about Confederate names and symbols.”

You can read more about the movement to rename schools that honor Confederate soldiers from the Learning for Justice program here and here.

Editor’s note: The SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program changed its name to Learning for Justice in February to reflect its evolving work in the struggle for radical change in education and in communities. The rollout of the new name has been taking place over the last several months, as the program makes changes on its website and social media accounts. The name change will also take place gradually in the program’s publications, lessons and other resources. The Spring 2021 issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine is the last one under that name. Starting with the Fall 2021 issue, it will be called Learning for Justice magazine.        

Illustration by Cornelia Li