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Alumni Join Push To Change Controversial Name Of High School In Tyler

LM Otero
The Associated Press
In this Sept. 6, 2017 photo, workers inspect a statue of Robert E. Lee in a public park in Dallas. Last September, crews removed a statue of Robert E. Lee from a pedestal and carted it away from a Dallas park named for the Confederate general.

Michael Nelson Miller graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler in 1961, a few years after the school opened and before it was desegregated.

During his college years, he realized his alma mater was drenched in nostalgia for the Confederacy.

“Everything at the school had been named for something having to do with the Lost Cause,” he said. “And I began to realize that the Lost Cause was such a fraud. And then I began to think, how does that fit in with my Christian faith?”

Miller, a minister and professor of history at Texas State University, is joining community members urging a change to the school’s name. 

He and two other white graduates, Byron Baldwin and P. M. (Marc) Bailes, wrote a letter last week to the board of the Tyler Independent School District. In the letter, which was also published by the Tyler Morning Telegraph, they said African American citizens are doubly burdened: they pay taxes to support Robert E. Lee High School and also have to explain to their children that Lee fought to keep slavery.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” Miller said. “I think it’s an issue of fairness.”

Residents of Tyler have pushed before for the district to change the name. Indeed, the quest goes back 50 years. The violent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 ignited a year of debate.

“I’m a child of the South, I’ve lived in Tyler for 40 years, and I’ve never understood why it’s named Robert E. Lee,” said the Reverend M. K. Mast at the time, according to the Morning Telegraph. “It hurts when we go by and see this.”

Tyler ISD ultimately failed to take up a motion to vote on the name.

Recent protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have renewed the push to change the name of Robert E. Lee High and also John Tyler High School, named for a former U.S. president who also sided with the Confederacy. 

Cross country runner Trude Lamb has said she won't wear the Lee name on her jersey.

In a statement in June, school board president Wade Washmon said, “This time in between school years will hopefully be used to discuss, and find both consensus and meaningful resolution in a unified manner.”

He also said the board would limit statements on the matter to meetings of the panel in which the name issue is on the agenda.

A board meeting is scheduled for July 20, but there’s no public agenda yet.

The Morning Telegraph reported that Tyler ISD’s superintendent said he believes the board will vote on the name change this time.

Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.