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Ex-Students At Robert E. Lee High In Florida Disagree Over Name Changes

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The school district in Jacksonville, Fla., is about to make a big decision. They're choosing whether or not to change the names of nine schools, but it's really a choice about how to remember America's history with slavery and who gets to be a hero.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We would like to see the name Robert E. Lee High School to be preserved. There's a lot of history.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Quit picking out pieces of history to support your current cause. History is history.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I run the halls with a Confederate slave owner general on the wall, but nobody cares.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And if the name changes - big deal. My life is not going to be one iota different. I encourage you to change the name.

MARTIN: Those are just some of the voices from a series of town hall meetings held in Jacksonville. You heard Robert E. Lee High School mentioned. The Confederate general's name is at the center of the debate in this city. The school has been around since 1927. The most famous alumni named their band Lynyrd Skynyrd after their gym teacher, and they wrote this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYNYRD SKYNYRD SONG, "SWEET HOME ALABAMA")

MARTIN: Lee High School was all white for decades. It was fully integrated in 1971. Today more than 70% of the students are Black, and many of them want the name changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Mostly, I'm just disappointed at the fact that it's 2021 and I'm still having to explain to people why I don't think that we should go to a school that's named after Robert E. Lee.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: A lot of the accomplishments, test scores, the community - all of that is overshadowed by the name.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: As Black students, we can't have a voice without it being cut short or not even being heard. We can't have an opinion without being told we are wrong. Our voices are silenced.

MARTIN: Similar debates are happening all over the country, and in Jacksonville, it has split the community and the school's alumni.

JULIE MOORE: My name is Julie Moore. I grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., moved away for many, many years and moved back recently - you know, actually, right during the pandemic. I graduated in '85.

ROB LAWRENCE: I'm Rob Lawrence - Robert E. Lee class of 1980. I was 17 when I graduated, and I went into the Marine Corps for a few years and switched over to the Navy. I was a Navy helicopter pilot. Ended up back in Jacksonville.

MARTIN: As you heard there, Rob and Julie went to Lee High School around the same time. They both still have deep roots in the community, but they've got very different feelings about the school and its legacy. They are both white, and that matters because the biggest division on this issue is among white alumni. This is the high school memory that sticks in Julie's mind.

MOORE: We had a teacher there who would come to school dressed in a Confederate uniform when he taught the Civil War movement, and he called it the war of Northern aggression and mumbled the N-word under his mouth. You know, I think about that now, and I think about how that really wouldn't fly today, but we didn't have the tools then to stand up to him or say anything.

MARTIN: Rob's memories have a much different sheen to them.

LAWRENCE: My senior year, I was elected as the general for the football games. I stopped playing football my senior year, and I became a cheerleader. I dressed up as Robert E. Lee and hung out with the cheerleaders on the sideline.

MARTIN: Oh, you were the mascot.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, that's the word (laughter). There was a gray uniform with a yellow sash, a white cowboy hat.

MARTIN: Do you remember cheers that you did?

LAWRENCE: I do remember them, but please don't ask me to do them. I just - I'm not going to do the - (chanting) hotty, toddy, gosh, almighty (ph).

MARTIN: I will say, it's hard to imagine someone having a Robert E. Lee mascot in this day and age. At that point, did anybody remark on it?

LAWRENCE: Absolutely not. And this is one of the things we discuss all the time. It's like, at no point when I went to Lee did anybody ever complain about the name. We were proud to say we went to Robert E. Lee. Everybody was. And this is why it's so difficult for me to even understand we're going through this process.

MARTIN: The process has been intense. While most of the other schools in Jacksonville had three town halls about changing the names, there was so much interest that Robert E. Lee held five. Hundreds of people stood up to speak. The community leader voted in favor of changing the name, but it wasn't binding. Rob and Julie both went to multiple meetings and spoke up, but we wanted to hear how they would speak to each other. So as part of NPR's series on democracy called We Hold These Truths, we brought them together to work through their positions.

OK, you guys, thank you again. And I've met both of you, but you haven't met each other, and so...

What you're going to hear next is a condensed version of their conversation. It started with a connection.

MOORE: There was a lot of school spirit around football, basketball. I was on the swim team.

MARTIN: You were a cheerleader, too, right?

MOORE: I was a cheerleader for the basketball team, yeah.

LAWRENCE: Was Coach Smith the swimming coach for you?

MOORE: He sure was.

LAWRENCE: He was my swim coach, too.

MARTIN: So you two have different opinions about whether or not to change the name of your high school. I guess I'll start with you, Julie - what's your position on this and why?

MOORE: I mean, I think for me, this really boils down to having some basic empathy for some of my classmates who expressed their discomfort both back in the day and now, that they did not appreciate and felt disrespected a little bit by having to go to a school named after someone who did not necessarily support African Americans as full-bodied citizens. I just feel like we should listen to people of color when they tell us that something is hurtful and not try to make it about us.

MARTIN: Rob?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. My position is more practical. I support the students both now and in the future. I think changing the name is going to cost a lot of money, money that could be better spent in other areas. Another big point - and I'll make it to you, Julie, and maybe you can shed some light - changing the name of the school is not going to improve academic performance. It's not going to decrease truancy. It's not going to create racial harmony. I want to help students. I want to help them learn. I want to help them become good citizens. But I don't see how changing the name is going to do that. And I also - if you do change the name, the alumni will disappear. Their support will disappear. You won't have any of those programs anymore.

MOORE: I mean, to me, that stuff feels a little like blackmail to me when you say...

(LAUGHTER)

MOORE: ...You change the name, we're not going to help you. But...

LAWRENCE: Right. I've heard that before.

MOORE: Yeah.

LAWRENCE: It's not - (inaudible). It's just a fact. I mean, why would a group of people want to help a school that they have no connection with?

MOORE: I think the money thing, to me, is just sort of an excuse, right? I mean, I guess, Robert, my question to you is, why do you think all of these schools in Jacksonville were named after Confederate generals in the first place?

LAWRENCE: Why do I - should be obvious. They were - this is the South. These were Southern heroes.

MOORE: But they lost. I mean...

LAWRENCE: So? That doesn't take away from who they were and how they were held in high esteem for the area, you know?

MOORE: Right, but they fought to enslave other people.

LAWRENCE: That's really not what they were doing. And again, I don't want to get into a history - I was saying earlier I'm not a historian.

MOORE: I mean, what about how it makes people feel? Let me give you an analogy. Do you think that Jewish kids should be sent to a school named after Adolf Hitler, for example?

LAWRENCE: No.

MOORE: I mean, I know that's a pretty extreme example, but that's how...

LAWRENCE: But is there a school named after Adolf Hitler?

MOORE: But it's the same thing to African American people who are being forced to go to a school where they were...

LAWRENCE: There's no comparison between...

MOORE: ...Enslaved, where they were beaten. I mean...

LAWRENCE: ...Hitler and Robert E. Lee. There's no comparison.

MOORE: It's a comparison of how you feel being made to go to the school named after your oppressors.

LAWRENCE: Well...

MOORE: So that's the comparison. I'm not comparing the sins...

LAWRENCE: Right, right, right. But...

MOORE: ...Or the - with the accomplishments of either. I'm saying as a human being, if you had to go to a school named after someone who oppressed you and all of your people, how would that make you feel?

LAWRENCE: Honestly, I probably - you have to put it into perspective and into context. Let's say - I can't even think of - let's - you want to use Hitler? Let's use Hitler. Let's say, instead of Robert E. Lee, that school was named Adolf Hitler High School. But they had the best football team in the state, and I wanted to play football there. I would go there. I wouldn't hesitate to go there. It wouldn't bother me one bit.

MOORE: OK, that's fair. That's a very personal, personal feeling that you would have. And I...

MARTIN: A few moments later, Robert made a bigger point.

LAWRENCE: I want to see all this stuff stop. I think there's a lot of nonsense going around - and not just here, all over the country. And...

MARTIN: When you say stuff, there's a lot in that word. Can you...

LAWRENCE: Tearing down statues, changing names everywhere - it's rampant. We're judging a man that lived 150 years ago in an era where things were totally different. I mean, I think that we should just leave things alone and focus on what's important, which is academics, education, safety - that kind of stuff.

MOORE: Honestly, Robert, if they change that name, it's not going to change anyone's memories. It's not going to change anyone's experience. It's not going to change what's written on their diploma or their yearbook. All that is still going to be intact. It's just going to be a new era for the 70% of students who are Black that attend that school.

LAWRENCE: Sure.

MOORE: You know?

LAWRENCE: Sure. But again, I think there are so many different ways that money could be spent.

MARTIN: And so it went. When we were done, Julie and Rob talked about meeting again, maybe continue the conversation over coffee, talk about old times on the swimming team - or maybe not. Maybe they each just retreat back to their own corner of the city - their own memories, their own view of the world - because that option is just so much easier.

We never expected these two people to come to some sort of resolution or to change each other's minds. I mean, they couldn't even agree on the facts of the Civil War. How were they going to find common ground on renaming a school? But they showed up. They listened to each other. And when the state of our civil discourse is so low, there is value in that alone. The school board in Jacksonville will vote tonight on the name change. If it goes through, Robert E. Lee students will return to the classroom this fall in a school called Riverside High.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "AFTER THOUGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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