The Final Plea for Robert E. Lee in San Angelo

 

OPINION — Tonight the San Angelo ISD Board of Trustees decides if Robert E. Lee’s name will be removed from Lee Middle School.

I am not allowed to relate to how a black person feels about the name of Robert E. Lee, but I get it. I have had discussions with people of color and I know there’s no reconciliation of the Robert E. Lee name for them. None at all.

Among the best arguments for changing the name is that the black community didn’t have a seat at the table in 1949 when the school was named. This is true. However, here it is in 2020 and there are no blacks on the school board now, either.

I am empathetic to the black community’s viewpoint, but I am not convinced demeaning one racial group to satisfy another racial group is productive. The way in which this renaming Robert E. Lee Middle School is demanded doesn’t sit right with me for many reasons.

My primary objections are the tenants of Critical Race Theory attached to it. CRT is built upon the ideology of dehumanizing whites, or using race issues, as a wedge to silence dissent for all kinds of political discourse, including the arguments in this piece. Adherents of CRT will label and dismiss anyone with an appreciation of Robert E. Lee as indistinguishable from Richard Spencer. There’s no middle ground. I’ll take that risk because the side must be told.

Approaching a racial issue like Lee’s name doesn’t have to be a wedge issue. Instead of foraging up long-hidden grievances and demeaning the ancestral legacies of many still alive today, those wanting a change should have approached it with a positive, inclusive message. Such as, those wanting a change should have proposed an alternative and sold the idea as a positive effort.

Instead, we are told all Confederate history is bad, should be swept under the rug, as in relegated to a dark, dusty corner of a library. And that, if we don’t agree, we need to 'lift up our sheets,' as the head of San Angelo’s NAACP said.

The anti-Lee side does not have an answer to the fact that Lee served in the U.S. Army here, that at the time of the naming of the school grandfathers who were veterans of the Civil War were freshly buried here, or that Lee was not an anti-abolitionist ideologue but rather a soldier who believed in duty, honor and country. Yet, when given the no-win choice of choosing loyalty to his state or the federal government, chose his state, Virginia, first.

What is more, the anti-Lee side has ignored the great reconciliation of the Civil War — a horrible chapter in U.S. history where 600,000 men died on both sides combined.

Whatever the criticisms are of Reconstruction in Texas, as the process moved forward, the federal government eventually came to an understanding that relegating former Confederate veterans to criminal status and denying them access to serve their states in the post-war era could have led to a second Civil War via an insurgency. Former Confederate leaders, including Lee, all renounced the rebellion, and slavery, and went on to achieve great things for society. The federal government pardoned all, including Lee, albeit a little late in 1975.

For Lee, he was asked time and time again to call for a new guerrilla rebellion. He refused. During the post-war years, he wrote former CSA General PGT Beauregard where he begged his former subordinate to cool his heels and let Reconstruction run its course. Meanwhile, Lee became a distinguished president of Washington College, now called Washington and Lee University in Virginia, where he served as an educator until he died in 1870.

Likewise, in Texas, former Confederate leaders like John H. Reagan distinguished themselves in public service as leaders in Texas following the Civil War. Post-war, Reagan served Texas in the U.S. Senate, was the first chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, and was instrumental in establishing the Texas State Historical Association.

Lawrence Sullivan Ross, a general in the CSA who retired that position at war’s end at the ripe age of 26, went on to become one of the most successful Texas governors in history and saved the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas from being closed forever. It is now Texas A&M University in College Station. Ross’ dedication to the education of Texans of all types led to his name being given to the university in Alpine.

Had the federal government not immediately pardoned these men and allowed them to continue productive careers during the post-war era, and had those former Confederates not assumed the mantle of providing such needed leadership to this state and other southern states, the United States likely would not exist today.

Consider what happened in Iraq circa 2003-2011.

Had President George W. Bush applied the lessons from the post-Civil War south and incorporated former Ba’athist Party leadership into the administrative functions of post-war Iraq in 2003, a post-war insurgency likely never would have happened and Iraq would be a much better place today.

Some opponents of the Lee name have guessed that the reason the middle school was named after Robert E. Lee was to subjugate all blacks in front of the Civil Rights era. Respect for General Lee stemmed from an alternate history of the Civil War called the “Lost Cause,” goes the argument. I disagree.

Lee’s name became synonymous with the honor of all Confederate veterans, all of whom were fathers and grandfathers of those still alive in San Angelo in the late-1940s. The sacrifices those veterans gave were in the forefront of the community as most of that generation had just died, or were about to pass on. I believe those school board members, and the San Angelo ISD superintendent, may have been in a frame of mind to honor those veterans by honoring Lee, who was known to carry a great deal of empathy for his soldiers. Honoring Lee was synonymous with honoring those recently buried Civil War veterans here.

Who was on the San Angelo ISD Board of Trustees in 1949? Here’s the list:

1949-1950 San Angelo School Board:

  • M.W. Averyt - Assistant Superintendent & Clerk of Board
  • Ercell Brooks
  • Dr. C.B. Beall
  • Bryan Dickson - Superintendent of Schools & Secretary of the Board
  • George Golightly
  • Dr. Charles W. Koberg*
  • John E. Martin
  • W.I. Marschall - President
  • Horton Messer*
  • Dr. W.E. Schulkey, Vice President*
  • Tom Williams

*noted as a new member as of April

The question has arisen if the same people on the 1949 school board served through the desegregation of 1954. This was not the case except for John E. Martin, who served from 1949 until 1954. Here are the school board members of 1954:

1954-1955 San Angelo School Board: 

  • Marion Balch - Second Vice President
  • Alvin Hay - Assistant Secretary
  • J. Homer Jordan, Jr. - Secretary
  • Frank M. Pool - President
  • Dr. K. B. Round - First Vice President 
  • Dr. W. B. Rountree
  • Curt F. Steib
  • John E. Martin

The school board will decide tonight if the intentions of this school board of the past was to use the name of a middle school to insult the black community back then. From reviewing archives of the local papers from 1949, we learn that back then there were 5,458 white students and 394 black students. To teach them, the district employed 164 white teachers and 12 black teachers. Superintendent Bryan Dickson noted then that he was overstaffed on teachers for all colors. Desegregation came early for San Angelo in 1954, despite Robert E. Lee’s name on that junior high.

The ebb and flow of our history not only created an environment of achievement for all races in San Angelo, but also in the United States. Our country is founded upon the revolutionary declaration that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, that principle was extended in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address where we reaffirmed we are a nation “conceived in liberty,” the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and asserted equal rights for all Americans, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 extended these rights to black citizens in the segregated South.

All of this was accomplished because of, not in spite of, American heroes like Robert E. Lee. If only the proponents of the name change could recognize this.

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