New doubts over the old school name
Across the South, schools named for Confederate heroes are under challenge.
RALEIGH, N.C. — It's a lingering irony in the South that many of the region's mostly black public schools are named after Confederates who fought, at least in part, to preserve the slave trade.
To many, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and J.E.B Stuart are simply "sons of the South": men who stood up against an invasion during the Civil War. But to others, going to school at Lee Elementary or Jackson Intermediate is a disturbing nod to an old American apartheid that many believe still subjugates poor blacks, especially in Dixie.
To be sure, the sad-eyed, white-whiskered Lee abhorred slavery; Stonewall Jackson tutored black children; and Davis adopted a black son. But today, 30 years after police were called to high schools to quell racial tensions from Wilson, N.C., to Portsmouth, Va., black activists across the South and as far north as Vermont are vying to change the names of schools named after Confederate notables. And the long-simmering acrimony over Confederate symbols like the St. Andrew's cross is moving into the thornier realm of Southern personages - and dividing Southern politics at a time when Northern Democrats are desperate to woo Dixie voters.
Some experts see the controversy as healthy and necessary, enlivening a dialogue over how, and where, to honor Southern heroes - and deciding just who those heroes are. And it's prompting activists on both sides to take a fresh look at one of America's defining struggles.
For most Southerners, naming schools after Confederate heroes was part of "a casual assumption that white heroes of the past deserve to be commemorated by everybody," says Fitzhugh Brundage, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "It's only become an issue now because of African-Americans who predominate in these schools [and] would prefer to have a name that's relevant to their past."
Today, dozens of schools across Dixie and beyond are named after Confederate leaders, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And many schools that were once all white are now predominantly African-American: In Atlanta alone, 71 of 91 public schools are dominated by black students.
Consequently, it's now African-Americans who have the lobbying heft - and are using it. In New Orleans, at the behest of a black lobbying group calling for the end of what they say is America's own version of apartheid, there have been local votes to change the names of all schools named after slaveholders - and to honor the likes of Martin Luther King and W.E.B. DuBois instead of Jackson and Stuart.
As far north as Brattleboro, Vt., racial epithets in hallways have spurred a movement to change the school mascot from a Kentucky Colonel to a "less offensive" symbol. "The colonel is as offensive to me as a Nazi officer would be to the Jews," said a black parent at a hearing there earlier this month.
In Gadsden, Ala., the school board refused to remove the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest - Klu Klux Klan apologist and first KKK grand wizard - from a high school, but in Birmingham, Robert E. Lee High School became Martin Luther King High School in 2001. Even in Lee's own beloved Virginia, the Richmond Boy Scouts troop changed its name from "Robert E. Lee" to "Heart of Virginia."
Still, many see the efforts to rename and remember not as a progressive movement, but as a divisive one fueling misunderstanding on both sides. Some Democratic Party consultants say the debate is creating unnecessary rifts, and tearing apart coalitions the party depends on. Politically, they say, it's a no-win situation: Offend whites proud of their Confederate heritage, or antagonize those clamoring to change school names.
But for many, renaming schools isn't political so much as it is symbolic - a way to help black children escape the oppressive names and legacies of those who fought to keep slavery.
In few places has the debate reached such a pitch as in Hampton, Va., where a former psychology professor named Erenestine Harris spurred a caustic debate by petitioning across the city to rename local schools.
As a substitute teacher at both Robert E. Lee Elementary School and Jefferson Davis Middle School - both predominantly black - Ms. Harrison said she heard students telling others they "look like slaves."
She worries that reminders of that legacy - like school letterhead, signs, and cheers - will give underprivileged blacks yet another stigma to overcome. "This is all about the institution of slavery," she says.
As Harrison walked from mall to mall, collecting signatures on her petition drive, she also saw how deeply the South is still split over its symbols: Nearly every black person she approached wondered what the new name would be, she says; nearly every white person wondered why on earth she was doing it.
Still, she admits to reaching for her copy of "The Civil War for Dummies" and learning a few things about the men who stood up to the North. While some white heritage groups have tried to intimidate her (nasty e-mails are a dime a dozen, she says), she also found a black populace with gaps in its perspective.
Those pockets of misunderstanding, say critics, are a big part of the problem. Many insist the movement is a sign of misread history - or a history shorn of its subtleties - with false charges of oppression and a refusal to blame black leaders or assume responsibility for problems with economic parity, single motherhood, and disproportionate numbers of young black men going to jail.
"This is a ridiculous example of political correctness gone to the extreme," says Ronald Radosh, a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. "To change the history of the past and obliterate these individuals is ridiculously meaningless and somewhat pathetic."
Harrison disagrees. But while her petition to change the name of Jefferson Davis Middle School is going forward, she's dropped her efforts to rename the Lee school. What changed her mind was a simple historical fact: In 1902, Lee's daughter, Mary Custis Lee, took a Rosa Parks-like stand by sitting with blacks in a train car, despite protests from whites.
"I'm a Lee supporter now," she admits. "In the black mind, the Civil War was all about slavery. But that, of course, was not the whole story."