Goose Creek speakers debate both sides of REL name change; no decision

The “Save Robert E. Lee High School Baytown Texas” group has started a petition that can be signed in person at the following businesses: Dr. Gary Boehme, 4001 Garth Rd #102; Dr. John Hurr, 7912 Bayway Drive; Junior’s Smokehouse, 3214 Barbers Hill Road; Margaret’s Sew Clean, 110 West Baker Road; Rooster’s, 6 West Texas Avenue; and Trophy’s Barber Shop, 103 East Texas Avenue. If you are unable to sign in person, you can find the link to the online petition on the Group’s Facebook page, “Save Robert E. Lee High School Baytown Texas,” or by emailing SaveREL2020@gmail.com.

The discussion regarding the potential name change of Robert E. Lee High School brought out approximately 450 virtual meeting attendees Monday night according to Goose Creek CISD school board member Agustin Loredo.

Loredo said that all told, including the read emails and letters on this issue, he believes those in favor of a change hold an approximate 60-40 advantage at this point of the discussion.

He also said requested that next month’s board meeting entertain a vote on whether to keep the name of Lee or not. He also put in a request to allow the public to have a chance to have time to suggest a new name for a future meeting if the board were to vote to remove Lee’s name.

“That’s what I asked for, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” Loredo said. “My stance hasn’t changed: I feel it’s time for a change.”

Those in attendance were able to hear 29 speakers voice their stances on either side of the issue. Of those who spoke, 20 showed support for a name change and nine wanted to maintain the school as Robert E. Lee’s.

Pertaining to those who identified themselves by graduating class, of those who graduated in the Class of 1978 or earlier (those born on or before 1960 with some exceptions) all seven supported keeping the REL name. For those graduates from 1979 to 1998 (those born in 1961 to 1980 with some exceptions) eight voiced support for a name changed compared to two opposed. Among those who graduated from 1999 to 2018 (those born in 1981 to 2000 with some exceptions) all five supported the changing of the high school’s name.

Dr. James Seth, a REL graduate, was in favor of the name change, but acknowledged that the move would adversely affect the district financially and hoped the board would look past that in making its decision.

“I have to remind myself that when the school was named it was in a different time,” Seth said. “We are now in 2020 a year marked by the unjust murders of Black Americans which has forced educators and administrators to confront the uncomfortable truths of Southern Americans’ glorification of the Confederate past.”

Brian Patterson questioned the vitriol of those who fight to keep Lee’s name on the high school.

“Baytown’s soul needs redeeming,” Patterson said. “My alma mater’s name still needs redeeming and for causing trouble for every class of black students that ever walked the walls of Robert E. Lee and for every single alumnus who supports this initiative to change the name. It’s time to eliminate the name from my high school, right now.”

Cynthia Pizana, who identified herself as a “graduate of GCCISD schools,” spoke in support of the Black community as a Latina.

“As long as names like Lee remain, it more disturbingly conveys that Baytown’s leadership discounts the lives and contributions of the city’s past and present Black or Brown people,” Pizana said. “This is not a good message to convey for a city that has long suffered from a negative reputation as an industrial backwater in the Houston area and Gulf South.

“The images and ideologies associated with Lee furthermore do not correspond with how we want our town to be seen and understood.”

Lifelong Baytown and Ross S. Sterling graduate Dr. Victoria Marron spoke on the name change of the school many of her family members and associates have attended. She noted the concerns of speaking on this item during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The racial division occurred long ago based on the establishment of this community,” Marron said. “Myself, as a Latina, has experienced it. I have seen it, witnessed it, I have lived it. There is another pandemic that has gone on very long: That is the impact of the community that has been rooted in racist, oppressive practices, behaviors and microaggressions. If not now, when will we have this conversation? I ask that this is not to be tabled until January.”

Ginny Grimsley, a 1985 graduate, said she moved from Baytown because of a need to be “stuck in the past,” and its history of racial indignities and intimidation toward those who took exception.

“All of us who are speaking and who no longer live there, have the right to speak for those children (still attending) too,” Grimsley said.

Brandon Terry took exception to Loredo’s early comments in the media comparing “Baytown’s founders to Nazis.”

“My Grandfathers – both Baytonians – fought in World War II against Nazis,” Terry said. “There weren’t Nazis among our founders. That isn’t true no matter how much some want it to be true. This isn’t what Baytown is about. We don’t need to censor our history we need to learn from it.”

A 1970 REL graduate, Albert Contreras, said “I didn’t see anything going on that showed anybody doing anybody wrong,” when he attended the school.

“I am proud to be a graduate of Robert E. Lee High School,” Contreras said. “We played together, we worked together, and the teachers were great at Robert E. Lee. We had a great principal … they had everything going right. I don’t see why anybody wants to change the name because this happened years ago. What happens now is different than those slavery days. That don’t mean I have hate for Robert E. Lee name because he was a human just like you or I.

“That name doesn’t do anything to me. I just went to the high school in Baytown, Texas.”

Stephen Cox defended the name of Lee while stating as a Gander he stood with his “brothers” who were of different colors than himself.

“They were Asian, Hispanic and Black and we all sang ‘I Dream of Texas,’” Cox said. “It is an honor to be a Robert E. Lee graduate. I just feel that if you rename the school you will not only hurt the honor of the students who called each other brothers and sisters, but you will basically cave to outside influences of the name change.”

Felicia Young, a 2008 graduate of Ross S. Sterling, contended that the name of Robert E. Lee and racial issues have indeed been a part of Baytown’s DNA.

“Many of us know that this is a continuous point of contention in our community for many years and the discussion has come up for many, many years,” Young said. “The name of Robert E. Lee needs to be changed. Just because it has been effectively squashed down it doesn’t mean that there isn’t an issue. This desire for there to be an absence of tension doesn’t mean there is actually justice occurring.

“Intimidating people into being quite about an issue is not the same as there not being one.”

Young also noted that Ross S. Sterling was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Board president Jessica Woods chose to extend the 30-minute time limit for public comment and allow the speakers to be allowed the allotted three minutes and emails on the subject would be copied and submitted to all board members to be read privately in the interests of time. The public comment portion of the meeting took over an hour and a half before the board even got to the agenda portion of the meeting.

Woods said that despite people having misgivings towards her prudence and deliberation on the subject while also dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, she also should be expected now to take the input obtained at the board meeting seriously and to give it the respect it deserves before moving forward with any decision on the renaming issue.

She also noted the challenges to best make sure that all of those who asked to be a part of the public record and meeting’s minutes on the issues due to the nature of the virtual meeting protocols in place during the pandemic. One of the board’s challenges was to sift through hundreds of email and written communications that they received and being able to flesh out which ones wanted to be on record.

“I’m frustrated with the process as it currently exists with the pandemic and the protocols,” Woods said. “We’re reading all of the emails that are coming to us. This is something that requires community input and the community must be heard.”

She was also concerned that many of written communications on both sides of the issue – more in favor of keeping the name – were not read into public record at the meeting. 

Woods also said the board has received other correspondence regarding concerns of names of other schools in the district due to also some potentially unacceptable historical contexts.

Woods also said she would like to see further data into the age-grouping breakdown of who supports the name change or Robert E. Lee in staying in place after being told that the majority of the support for the name change came from the younger speakers at the meeting. 

“We need to hear from the community and all of those impacted by this decision need to have a voice and need to be considered,” Woods said.

On Tuesday, Loredo spoke on how well he felt both sides of the argument presented their causes at the meeting.

“It was a bit of a long evening and at some points it was very passionate,” Loredo said. “I appreciate everyone who called in and who was in attendance. I am very thankful that we gave everyone a chance to speak. I appreciate all the people who spoke no matter what side of the issue they were on.

“We will see what happens next month and here on out.”

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(1) comment

callily

The cost of changing the Robert E Lee alone is cause for shutting down the idea. But I will address the students and alumni they believe there’s a change needs to happen. Why now? I can pull up various pictures from various times and years throughout the school that none of you look to be pain or suffering in your days at Robert Lee. Robert E Lee died 63 years before the school was ever named. Segregation happened in the 60s but there was no mention of ever changing it after equality came about. Are the ones pushing for the name to change are they willing to open their pocketbooks and fund the over $100,000 cost rebranding the school would entail? Are you guys willing to re-open that checkbook and foot the bill for new class rings new uniforms new T-shirts advertising etc.? I don’t think so.... it’s just a movement to stand for something because you have nothing better to do at this time.... if we’re talking about traitors why aren’t we discussing people like William Ellison Jr. ? You know people of color slaves themselves that turned around and sold their own people into slavery? To me that is far more heinous than what Lee did

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