Shortly after the US Supreme Court ordered schools to desegregate in 1954, Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Alabama, opened.
Brown vs Board Education angered White segregationists at the time, and the school and others across the South were a result of the opposition to desegregation. Decades later, controversial buildings, especially Confederate monuments and schools named after Confederate figures, throughout the South have been the subject of debate. Montgomery – the birthplace of the civil rights movement – is no different.
In response to the death of George Floyd in 2020, many of these districts across the South and beyond pledged to rename schools that were named after Confederate leaders. More than two years after America’s racial reckoning, some have been renamed.
But in Montgomery – a school district that is 80% African American – the names Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Sidney Lanier remain on three high schools.
When protesters brought down the statue of Robert E. Lee in front of the school that bears his name in 2020, Clare Weil, the county board of education chair, called it a turning point.
“When that happened, it was kind of a wake up call for all of us that it’s time. It’s time to take care of some old business,” she told CNN. “Robert E. Lee High School was named in 1954 right after Brown vs Board of Education. Jeff Davis was named in 1968, right after integration was done. These were all hateful acts in my opinion, and it was time to change those names.”
But school board member Lesa Keith said changing the names would be more divisive than helpful. “My perception of this whole thing is that it has divided us as a board, and it has divided us as a city,” Keith said.
Despite Keith’s objection, the school board had enough votes to change the names of all three schools in July 2020. But since then, not much has happened.
Rev. John Gilchrist, one of the members on the renaming committee, said the committee – which includes community leaders as well as student representatives from the three Montgomery high schools – formed in April 2021 and members were selected by the president of the school board.
Gilchrist, whose son graduated from the school in 2015, also said a name change is trivial unless there’s also a focus on bettering education and the school system.
“It’s more than just a name change. And then by changing the name, what does it promote? What does the name do? By changing the name, is it going to better the education? By changing the name, is it going to better the safety for the kids? By changing the name, is it going to increase the benefits for the schoolteachers, better equipment? By changing the name, is it going to do all that?”
The Sidney Lanier school alumni association was also against renaming the school, arguing Lanier, a poet who served in the Confederate Army, was inappropriately grouped in with Davis and Lee, the Montgomery Advertiser reported. Earlier this year, the school board voted to eventually merge Lanier High School with another, removing the need for a new name.
‘We need to be honest about’ history
Just weeks into his tenure, Superintendent Melvin Brown is determined to see the names go. And while he’s aware of some school board members’ and alumni grievances that renaming the schools erases history or is part of some White Southerners’ heritage, he says the community needs to be honest about the complexities of these histories.
Brown grew up in Lee’s birthplace of Westmoreland County, Virginia.
“I learned that history from as soon as I could talk,” Brown said. “But knowing that that history wasn’t necessarily taught in a way that was full and accurate, and completely given the whole picture after I did my own reading over the years and knowing both sides of the story.”
Lee may have been “a brilliant military tactician… At the same time he was a slaver. At the same time, he led a rebellion against his own country,” Brown said.
According to previous CNN reporting, even among historians, Lee’s tactics have been highly scrutinized – most notably his style of leadership on the battlefield and his penchant for unnecessary aggression. Like other Confederate leaders, he suffered from poor maps and unprepared staff, but he also made his own problems, wrote historian Joseph Glatthaar, who has penned numerous books on the military, including two on Lee.
“His most egregious problem was to repeat an error that surfaced in his initial campaign: Lee attempted to coordinate too many independent columns. He overburdened himself and his staff. … What Lee achieved in boldness of plan and combat aggressiveness he diminished through ineffective command and control,” Glatthaar wrote in “Partners in Command: The Relationship Between Leaders in the Civil War.”
But for supporters of the name changes, it’s how the Montgomery schools got their names that they say is crucial to understand.
The Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) – a nonprofit with the mission of challenging racial and economic injustice – says Lee High School was named in 1954 as retaliation to Brown vs Board of education, which ended “separate but equal” in US schools.
And Jefferson Davis High School was named in 1968, right after integration, according to a 2020 EJI report.
“A federal court later observed, however, that the school was clearly intended to serve white children only: it was located ‘in a predominantly white section of Montgomery,’ was built to accommodate only ‘the number of white students residing in the general vicinity,’ and featured ‘a school name and a school crest [featuring the Confederate battle flag] that are designed to create the impression that it is to be a predominantly white school’,” according to the report.
The EJI reports that nationwide, there were coordinated efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to fight efforts toward racial equality.
“Many schools were given Confederate-themed names … as Southern states mounted what they termed ‘Massive Resistance,’ a coordinated effort by governors, legislators, and other white leaders to resist the racial integration of public schools,” the EJI report states.
Today, seniors at the now predominately Black Robert E. Lee High School told CNN that change is long overdue.
“We need to just cut all ties,” Z’karia Marshall, 17, said.
Arianna Brooks, 17, echoed the same sentiment. “It needs to happen now. It needs to be changed.”
‘We’ve got a lot of work to do’
In Atlanta, Forrest Hills Academy – named after Confederate general and founder of the Ku Klux Klan Nathan Bedford Forrest – is now Hank Aaron New Beginnings Academy. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lee Magnet School is now Liberty Magnet School.
But in Montgomery, one of the major obstacles delaying the school board is the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, which forbids the “relocation, removal, alteration, renaming, or other disturbance of any monument located on public property” for 40 years or more, signed in 2017 by Gov. Kay Ivey.
Earlier this year, an Alabama legislative committee advanced two bills designed to further protect Confederate monuments and criminalize people who attempt to remove them. Under one of the proposed bills, the fine for removing a monument would increase from a flat fee of $25,000 to $5,000 for each day a monument isn’t restored.
Weil said if they change the school name without getting state approval, they could face steep fines.
“If we can’t get a pass from them then there are funds that have been collected to pay those fines,” she said.
And more money would be needed to change everything from signage to letterhead to uniforms. It’s a price tag the school district hasn’t determined.
But as superintendent, Brown says whatever the cost, it will be well worth it: “There’s no price that is too steep for us to help kids and their well being.”
Jacquelyne Germain and Camila Moreno Lizarazo contributed to this report.