After Months Of Debate, A Decision Over Midland’s Robert E. Lee High School Looms

By Mitch Borden

In Midland, the fight over Robert E. Lee High School could be resolved soon as district officials move closer to selecting a new name.

The monthslong back-and-forth over what to rename the school began with an online petition in June that quickly garnered over 10,000 signatures. Now, the Midland Independent School District’s board of trustees are left with a decision: completely rename the school, or leave a trace of the Confederate general’s name on the building. 

The choice could cost Midland millions and further divide a community that already finds itself at odds with each other.

Lee Flags line Midland’s Grande Stadium for the Midland Lee Rebel’s first game. (Mitch Borden/Marfa Public Radio)

When Robert E. Lee High School first opened its doors in 1961, it was a segregated campus. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, it would take Midland ISD 14 years to integrate its high schools.

Since Midland ISD’s school board voted 6-1 at the end of July to strip the general’s name from the high school, some students and alumni have held demonstrations to protest the decision.

“Sixty years that name has stood, why is it wrong today?” asked Timothy Lyles, a 1976 Lee graduate, who showed up to a demonstration protesting the name change. “Why was it not wrong the second year it was up there, why wasn’t it wrong the fiftieth year it was up there?”

The effort to rename the school began this summer when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. Since then, dozens of Confederate symbols have been removed across the country—from statues taken down to schools being renamed. In Midland, residents began asking whether it was appropriate for one of its high schools, along with its freshman campus, to honor Robert E. Lee. 

The high school—which alumni and locals more commonly refer to as “Midland Lee”— is best known for its history on the football field. The Midland Lee Rebels won three consecutive state championships from 1998 to 2000.

Over the years, the school has tried to distance itself from the Confederacy, but distinct references still remain. On game days, stadium lights shine over players as they crash into one another. A big “Rebel Nation” banner hangs from the stands as the school’s drill team, dubbed the Dixie Dolls, dances for the crowd. In years past, the school’s band would blast “Dixie” after touchdowns. 

Generations have graduated from Midland Lee and commonly refer to themselves as the “FamiLEE.” 

Angela Boswell, who graduated from the school in 1988, counts herself as part of the Midland Lee family. She says recent demonstrations are fighting to preserve the legacy of Midland Lee students — not Robert E. Lee’s.

“We’re not racist,” said Boswell. “I don’t remember being racist in high school. I had friends of all shade colors, creeds, [and] sexual orientations.”

To her, the effort to change Midland Lee’s name feels like “reverse racism.”

“Why do they have to throw the white person under the bus,” said Boswell. 

Generations have graduated from Midland Lee and commonly refer to themselves as the “FamiLEE.” (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

Those against renaming the school have more or less agreed if the district is set on dropping the Confederate general’s name, then it needs to find a way to keep “Lee.”

“We have no issue and we agree that it’s time for Robert E. to be taken off the building,” explained Sunney Johnson, a mother of two Midland Lee students. “We agree with that.”

“There is absolutely no sense in sitting there and taking the legacy and exactly what put Midland on the map,” continued Johnson. “Why would you remove all of that?” 

Even though a large contingent of those fighting to keep Lee in the school’s name are alumni, there are graduates who feel otherwise — like John Norman.

“The name didn’t make us,” said Norman. “We made the name.”

Norman is Midland’s only Black city councilman and was appointed to the committee charged with finding a new name for the high school.  Norman’s stance is simple, he’s against any part of the general’s name staying. 

“Robert E. Lee fought to keep my ancestors enslaved.” He said, “For me to honor someone like that, and I’m speaking on a personal note, is really kind of ridiculous.”

In the 90s, Norman was a star on the football field for the Midland Lee Rebels. Back then, Confederate Battle Flags flew over games. And, even though he and his teammates were succeeding, Norman realizes now it must have been hard for his father to watch him play football while the school celebrated a racist legacy.

When Robert E. Lee High School first opened its doors in 1961, it was a segregated campus, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education seven years prior. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

“They try to make it seem like it was so long ago, but my dad had to drink from a colored water fountain,” explained Norman. “My dad had to enter through the backdoor.” 

The school has stopped doing things like having its marching band play “Dixie,” but that’s not enough for Norman. He said removing the general’s name is the next logical and ethical step for the school district to take.

However, that step may be harder than some expected. 

To rebrand the high school, and its freshman campus, could cost upwards of $3 million, according to a Midland ISD spokesperson, depending on whether the school’s colors and mascot are changed as well.

The district-appointed renaming committee has considered all of that as it weighs what names it should recommend to Midland ISD’s school board. As of right now, there are three official choices on the table: Midland Carver Lee High School, Midland Tall City High School and the committee’s top pick Midland Legacy of Equality and Excellence — an acronym for L.E.E.

There have been some signals from the school board that it may not choose any of the suggestions from the renaming committee.  A special meeting focused on renaming the school has been scheduled for this Wednesday. That’s when the renaming committee is slotted to officially present their selections.

If the school board does choose Midland L.E.E. as the new name for the campus, it wouldn’t be the first in Texas to go that route. A school in San Antonio did something similar a few years back. 

But, that option wouldn’t satisfy a lot of people — like Ashely Kemp.

Midland Lee players bow their heads in prayer after winning their first game of the season. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

“They are trying to make it racism lite,” Kemp exclaimed. “They’re trying to make it more palatable.” 

Kemp has been a vocal advocate for completely renaming the school. She said this long battle and the ferocity of Midland Lee supporters is “exposing the white supremacy that still reigns.”

She’s confident that someday Lee’s name will be completely removed from the high school. 

“I really do believe Midland will change. I feel like we already won. Like they’re, they’re fighting a battle they have already lost.”

After a recent football game, Mickey Serrano was standing on the field glistening with sweat, taking in the school’s victory over the Amarillo Sandies. 

The senior quarterback was excited about the win and was also proud of his teammates.

He wasn’t really thinking about the “Midland Lee Rebels” possibly becoming a thing of the past. In fact, he said he doesn’t care what his school ends up being called.

“I’m going to play ball no matter what my jersey says,” Serrano explained. “The legacy will go on. Lee, whoever it is, we’ll keep winning.”

About Mitch Borden

Mitch Borden is Marfa Public Radio's Permian Basin Reporter. If you have any questions about West Texas' energy industry or the Permian Basin email him at mitch@marfapublicradio.org.
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