Thousands Call For Midland’s Robert E. Lee High School To Be Renamed

By Mitch Borden

Calls for a Midland high school to be renamed have resurfaced with a petition that has garnered over 5,000 signatures.

Robert E. Lee High School was named after the Confederate Civil War General and was established in 1961 — the middle of the Civil Rights Movement.

An online petition has gathered over 5,000 signatures to change Robert E. Lee High School’s name. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

The petition was started online nearly a week ago by Lee High School alumnus Courtney Ratliff, who graduated in 1996.  A similar effort was made to change the highschool’s name in 2017, but that petition only received a little over 1,000 signatures and the. The effort comes as, across the country, statues and other symbols associated with racism, slavery and the Confederacy are being toppled over. Ratliff believes his campaign is picking up momentum because of the current national discussion about police killings of Black people.

“I eclipsed that in 24 hours. It wasn’t because I launched a huge campaign effort. It was because people knew it was time,” Ratliff said. 

He said he didn’t fully understand the implications of his high school’s name until he met his college roommate, who is also Black, for the first time. Ratliff described his roommate as being stunned by the school name.

“He looked at me like, ‘You went to what? There’s a school somewhere named Robert E. Lee? You’re black, why were you at this school?’”

Courtney Ratliff at a Black Lives Matter protest in Midland following George Floyd’s death. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

Alumni recall memories of when the school’s band used to play songs like “Dixie” — a song with origins in minstrel shows, where white performers often appeared in blackface — and watching performances by the school drill team named the “Dixie Dolls.” These celebrated school traditions are reminders of a painful, racist history for some Midland residents.

Before launching the petition, Ratliff said he heard from several Black Lee alumni who have told him they didn’t participate in school activities specifically because of the school’s name and mascot. Others said they wouldn’t participate in the school’s sports teams in hindsight.

“It’s hard to want to represent a school who doesn’t seem to represent you,” Ratliff said.

Midland Independent School School Board President Rick Davis has said that renaming Robert E. Lee High School is not a priority. But at a recent MISD school board meeting, residents, including Ratliff, showed up anyway to talk about changing the school name during the public comment period.

Midlander Cathy Broadrick said she felt that leaving the name normalizes prejudice. 

“In 1976, I was ashamed of that school,” Broadrick said. “In 2020, I am appalled that people have to drive by and see that name on that building.”

Another resident, Mercedes Buchanan, said: “Every students’ ancestors did not benefit from a man who fought to continue to fight for slaves to be the economic engine of this country…Why are we still forcing children who attend public school to endure this reminder daily?”

Lee High School is one of two public high schools in Midland. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

There are other alumni who do not want the school’s name changed. On the school’s alumni Facebook page, some wrote that changing the name would be like erasing history, or that rebranding the school would be a waste of money.  

A counter-petition to keep the school’s name the same was started by a man in Cypress, Texas — approximately 450 miles away — stating, “We believe that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man, an abolitionist, a patriot that only fought on the side of the Confederacy because he refused to take up arms against his native state Virginia.”

Ratliff dismisses all of these arguments, explaining, “As far as erasing history, nothing will ever change all that was accomplished at Lee High School. We will still have three state [football] championships. The band will still be one of the most recognized band programs in the country. None of that changes.” 

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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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