By Mitch Borden
Midland school officials recently approved changing the name of the city’s famous Robert E. Lee High School, along with its freshman campus. This comes as school districts across the country reevaluate campuses named after Confederate leaders.
The decision sparked celebration and rage across Midland as locals wrestle with the future as well as the history of one of the community’s most beloved schools.
The Midland Independent School District’s board met for their monthly meeting last Monday, set to take on one of the most divisive issues facing Midland — approving or rejecting a proposal to rename Robert E. Lee High School.
The board members heard over an hour of public comment concerning the potential name change. The majority of those who spoke told officials now is the time to stop honoring the Confederacy and remove the name of one of its most prominent figures. In the end, the meeting took four hours, and by the time it came to a close the school board had voted 6-1 to rename Lee High. The board also approved forming a committee to come up with possible new names.
Lee High’s name is an artifact left over from the days when Midland schools were still segregated. The school originally opened its doors in 1961, seven years before the city’s high schools integrated. Its mascot, the Lee Rebels, was chosen by a group of students.
An article published on Lee High’s website to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its opening described Robert E. Lee as a “gentleman” who:
“Some say is the most remarkable man the American South has ever produced.”
What Lee High’s website doesn’t describe is the decades of tension in the community created by the public school named after a man who fought to preserve the institution of slavery. There were efforts over the years to remove the name, but Lee became an adored name especially on the football field after the Lee Rebels won three state championships in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
At football games, the school’s band was known to erupt into a rendition of Dixie whenever the home team scored. The song, popularized as an anthem of the Confederacy during the Civil War, was the school’s unofficial fight song up until three years ago, when Lee’s principal suspended its use following the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia during a white nationalist rally.
At that same time, in 2017, there was also a petition to change Lee High’s name, but it failed because the school district didn’t feel like enough of the community was behind the effort. But then popular opinion began to shift in Midland this year following the killing of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that followed.
Courtney Ratliff, a 1996 Lee graduate and former band member who is also black, attended Midland’s largest protest over police brutality, which he said had a profound impact on him. And it helped influence him to start an “uncomfortable conversation” about his alma mater.
So, Ratliff logged on to the Lee High Facebook alumni group on June 6th and posted a comment stating the school’s name was problematic — which set off an explosive debate. Some were horrified by the idea that the school’s name was offensive while others wholeheartedly agreed. Once the debate was off the ground, Ratliff started and circulated an online petition to garner support for a name change.
Looking back at his time at Lee, Ratliff has conflicting feelings. He had a good experience as a high schooler, but the more he thought about the name of the school, the more frustrated he became that students, especially students of color, were forced to wear the name of a man who stands for values he finds so offensive.
“You fight for your name. You fight for the name of that school. You do everything for the name of that school,” Ratliff said. “When I really stopped and thought about it, was that name of that school really fighting for me?”
The name change petition quickly drew in supporters like Avery Shaw, a 2017 graduate from Lee. The more she thinks about the school’s name, the more it just doesn’t make sense.
“I don’t know why [Midland ISD] would name something after a man who was racist, who was a slave owner, [and] who tried to keep my ancestors from being free,” Shaw said.
Over 10,000 people ended up signing Ratliff’s petition. But thousands of others signed counter petitions to keep the name. One of those petitions was started by Midland County Judge Terry Johnson, who defends the legacy of Robert E. Lee.
According to Johnson,“That man served his nation to the best of his ability. It’s just not right what’s going on.”
Johnson is a proud Rebel and believes the name change effort will destroy the long legacy of excellence at the Midland school, and will just make the community “ordinary.”
“My uncle was a proud rebel in the first graduating class,” he said. “My children were proud rebels. My grandchildren. Now that identity is being taken away.”
That frustration of losing something personal is echoed by a lot of those who want to keep all, or part, of the school’s name, including Bryan Murry, the one school board member who opposed the change last Monday. He said during the Midland ISD school board meeting that many Lee alum felt this decision would:
“Destroy their legacy,” and explained, “The future dreams of elementary students to junior students to freshman high school boys who dream of someday wearing L-E-E on their helmets.”
Many alumni would be willing to drop “Robert E.” from the school, but Murry believes “Lee” needs to stay. In his opinion, most Midlanders don’t connect Lee High to the Confederate general. He said, “I’ve never heard anyone say ‘I go to Robert E. Lee High School.’ I’ve only heard people say ‘I go to Midland Lee High School.”
That argument didn’t convince school board president Rick Davis to hold off on voting on changing Lee High’s name though. In the past, Davis has refused to pick up the name issue because there wasn’t enough local support for changing it, but he said this time was different.
“I was flooded with emails,” he told Marfa Public Radio, and added that many of the emails were signed by Lee alum who included the year they graduated. After a certain point, it became clear to Davis that there was a groundswell of local support for the name change, at which point he said he “couldn’t agree more that [the name] needed to be changed.”
Courtney Ratliff had to watch the vote from the hospital as he battled COVID-19. He cried when the final tally was announced — his petition had been successful. Ratliff said he knew he’d eventually succeed in changing Robert E. Lee High’s name, he just never thought it would happen so fast.
“It was just like this weight had been lifted off of my shoulders,” Ratliff said. “And off the shoulders of Black Midland.”
The fight is not over yet, though. Now, a committee will come up with potential names to present to the school board by October. Some are trying to salvage the school’s brand by formulating an acronym that spells out Lee, or finding another historical figure whose name also happens to be Lee. This is totally unacceptable to Ratliff, who said these kinds of compromises have been proposed from the beginning.
He said it’s time for Lee High to fully start over, underneath a name and banner all students can be proud of.