Melanie Love graduated from Jacksonville’s Robert E. Lee High School in 1979. She was junior class president and student body president during her time at the school.
“I just cannot say enough about the school pride and our enthusiasm for all things Robert E. Lee,” Love said. “Not the person, the school.”
Robert E. Lee was the commander of the Confederate States Army, who led the South’s failed attempt to secede from the Union in America’s Civil War. Slavery was a key issue in the war and Lee himself was a slave owner.
When Love heard about the Duval County Public School district considering changing the name of six schools in the region with Confederate ties, including her alma mater, she took action.
Love, along with other alumni from Lee High School, formed an anti-renaming committee, and created a website for the campaign called “SaveTheSchoolNames.org”.
“It has nothing to do with defending an era of history,” Love said. “It simply has to do with defending the history and legacy of 92 graduating classes from Robert E. Lee,” along with the other schools being considered for a name change.
Nine total schools are now up for consideration by the school district to have their names changed, after school board member Ashley Smith-Juarez proposed three more:
- Joseph Finegan Elementary School
- Stonewall Jackson Elementary School
- Jefferson Davis Middle School
- Kirby-Smith Middle School
- J.E.B. Stuart Middle School
- Jean Ribault Middle School
- Robert E. Lee High School
- Andrew Jackson High School
- Jean Ribault High School
After all nine receive board approval for consideration, the proposal will undergoe a lengthy process.
Right now, principals at each of the schools create lists of key stakeholders for each school. That includes current students and employees, alumni, the school PTA, and the local community within the school’s zone.
Once that’s completed, the schools will hear from each of the stakeholders and determine if a name change is the best move for the school.
Love said there many reasons why changing the school names would be a detriment to the community. She said in speaking to alumni from Westside High, which had its name changed from Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in 2014, they don’t have the same passion for the school.
“The alumni lose interest, not only in financially supporting a school that is not the name of the school they graduated from, but also the volunteer participation from the alumni, which is really important and really sends a strong message to the children,” Love said. “That’s kind of dried up as well, because they are Forrest alumni and they want to support their alma mater.”
Love said the schools will also lose the recognition and prestige they’ve built up.
“One of the suggested names for Robert E. Lee is ‘change it to Riverside High,’” Love said. “Well, if you've got a stellar football player, or swimmer, or track participant that has just done incredibly well in their sport, and they apply to colleges, if it said Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida on their applications, then there is an immediate boost and value to what they're bringing to their application. Riverside High School is kind of like the asterisk after Pete Rose's name, figuratively speaking, because it’s like it's conditional. It's not the real deal.”
The slogan on the committee’s website is “Now is NOT the time,” an opposite reflection of what Duval County School Board Chair Warren Jones said in June, as he referred to Jacksonville’s removal of Confederate monuments as a good time to move forward with changing school names.
A spokesperson from the school district told WJCT News that to change the name of all nine schools, it would cost north of $1 million, as a ballpark range.
The Jacksonville Public Education Fund started a donation fund to help pay for the name changes. So far it’s collected almost $8,000, and a spokesperson for the education fund said promotion for it will increase as the renaming process gets further along.
But Love and the committee believe that money would be better if raised for school infrastructure help.
“We feel like the money that the school board is having JaxPEF raise for them would be much better spent on things that improve the learning environment for the students and the teaching environment for the teachers because those are the things that mainly influenced the academic outcomes,” Love said.
In a conversation with WJCT News in July, JaxPEF President Rachael Tutwiler Fortune cited a 2017 study that correlated school climate and comfort to student success rates.
To Love and the committee, the notion that student successes directly relate to an uncomfortable school name is “abstract,” using Westside High School as an example.
“Every year since the name was changed, it has remained a ‘C’ school,” Love said. “There's been no measurable improvement in the academic performance of those students as a result of the name change. Another thing that we found really interesting was that of the targeted schools, three or four of them are already ‘A’ or ‘B’ schools and have been for quite some time. So they are obviously not struggling under a dark shadow of the name of their school.”
Love said she understands that some students may be offended by the name of the school, but it doesn’t mean it should be changed.
“History from its very beginnings is full of reprehensible events and acts, but every historical event and act has a lesson to be learned from it,” Love said. “The main lesson to be learned is that you have that benchmark, whatever it is, to grow from and to do better from.”
Meanwhile, some other alumnus from Robert E. Lee High School are completely fine with a name change.
Rhonda Stringfellow graduated from the school in 1985. She’s donated to the JaxPEF fund, but doesn’t believe it should be put on the backs of private donors.
“This is a problem that the city created when they approved this name back in the day, and there's no reason why it can't be corrected now,” Stringfellow said.
She said it can be difficult to bring up where she went to high school now.
“It's embarrassing to say that you graduated from Robert E. Lee High School because he is very well known, so people make that connection and say ‘Really? That's the name of your high school?’” Stringfellow said.
Despite her feelings, she said in speaking with people from Lee High School and in her graduating class, there have been more against the name change than for it. But she’s still standing by her beliefs.
“I don't see how you can go forward with the name of Robert E. Lee and not have it carry all of the other things with it as part of that package deal,” Stringfellow said. “And I think now, the present time, is too late. It should have been done long, long before.”
Don Fountain also graduated from Lee High School, the same year as Stringfellow. He’s now a history professor at a college in North Carolina.
“Fundamentally, I will always be a Robert E. Lee graduate,” Fountain said. “I can walk into my home today and my diploma will say Robert E. Lee. What we're asking people to do is take into consideration future generations and look at what their experiences will be.”
He said the topic has been boiling to this point for years, and although it gained major momentum this year, it was bound to happen.
“In the American Revolution, people tore down statues of George the Third, and they did so because our ideals changed. We moved from being proudly British to saying no, we want independence. This is no different,” Fountain said.
If decisions are made to change the schools’ names, the next steps would be identifying new names to use, and having community members vote on them. A spokesperson for DCPS said there is no timeline for when the current verification list phase will be complete.
Sky Lebron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.