By Joe Hyde
SAN ANGELO, TX — In a sometimes raucous open forum on the issue of renaming Robert E. Lee Middle School, a frustrated head of San Angelo’s local NAACP chapter, Shirley Spears, demanded those gathered in opposition to her position to deep-six the Confederate general’s name, to “take your sheets off.”
The San Angelo ISD is conducting a series of moderated forums on the possible renaming of Robert E. Lee Middle School. Spears said her demands have expanded to include renaming John H. Reagan Middle School as well.
The forum began innocuously where hired professional mediator, Dr. Dawson Orr, stepped through the Administration’s seven step questionnaire that many in the room felt was leading the Administration’s committee that will make its recommendation to the San Angelo ISD Board of Trustees to ax the Confederate general’s name on the middle school.
The questionnaire that anyone can take online, begins with two seemingly open questions about what kinds of outcomes do San Angelo ISD citizens desire for a Lee Middle School pupil? It isn’t until question 3 that the survey approaches the name of the school.
Question 3 is, “How does the name of the school impact the students?”
Orr noted in his opening remarks that over 54 percent of the students at Lee are economically disadvantaged, setting the stage.
In response to the first two questions, forum participants wondered aloud why the questions weren’t applicable to Robert E. Lee or the movement underway to rename the school? The head of the local NAACP, Spears, made her presence known during the discussion then, announcing that their aim was not just to remove Lee’s name from the middle school, but she and her group are also demanding the school district remove John H. Reagan’s name from one of the elementary schools.
Reagan was a Texas politician before and after the Civil War. But during the war, he was the Confederate States of America’s postmaster general. Imprisoned in solitary confinement after the war, Reagan wrote a passionate open letter to his fellow statesmen in Texas begging them to renounce succession and slavery once and for all, or face dire consequences. He was initially ostracized for his letter but as years of Reconstruction dragged on, he was proven to be correct in his predictions. The old prophet was nicknamed “Old Roman” by fellow statesmen and in the newspapers. For this, his political career was resurrected. He served Texas as a U.S. senator and later was named the first head commissioner of the newly formed Texas Railroad Commission. He was also a co-founder of the Texas State Historical Association.
A current Lee student rose at the forum and said that if the school has a “negative name” it is disrespectful.
The pro-Lee side was very vocal and thoughtful throughout. One Lee supporter asked why are we wanting to wipe away history? “No one was perfect except for Jesus,” she said.
Michael Brown, a white man who organized the early Black Lives Matter protests in San Angelo, retorted that no history was being erased because anyone can look up history on their smart phone. His ultimate suggestion was to name the school after “anyone who hasn’t done any harm against others to make their legacy.”
Lyleanne McClellan-Thee, a local conservative activist and Lee supporter, noted that the change of the school name impacts 70 years of Lee alumni, the trophies, and in-school accomplishments of those who attended Lee over the years. Her remarks were met with groans from the side opposing her and Lee’s name.
At this point, Orr the mediator admonished everyone that the forum was not intended to be a debate. “No debate is allowed,” he said. Standing at the rear of the room was a San Angelo police officer, hired to monitor the meeting should it get out of control.
As the topic of why Lee Middle School was named as such, Orr gained the mistrust of more than half the room when he made a point that seemingly presented the bias of the “Engaging Equity” process set forth by the Administration.
“We have to remember about who was on the school board in 1949 and we need to ask who did not have a voice in naming Lee Middle School,” he said. This led to an interesting discussion of who was actually on the school board in 1949 and what were their motivations in naming the school after Lee?
Hoots and calls came from the audience following Orr’s declaration, most suggesting the process was rigged against Lee. Lee alumnus Nelda Nowlin recalled her experience during the desegregation of San Angelo’s schools in 1954. She sad the school board’s actions back then were historic and the board gave the community only one week to prepare for the drastic move. She said the timeline of the quick decision did not offer anyone a chance to debate, second-guess, or oppose the decision.
“It completely changed the makeup of the schools,” she said. “I started 4th grade with all new people I didn’t even know before.”
Nowlin said she didn’t know about the racial divide in America until she went away for college.
“Our school board was in the minority (of school boards across the South) because they decided to desegregate early,” she said.
Michael Brown uttered the only curse word during the forum. He said, “No one wants to live on Sh**head Street.” He was presuming all in the room felt Lee’s name to be worthy of the same epithet.
One senior citizen woman near the back opened her comments declaring sarcastically that Lee Middle School should be renamed “Mesquite” Middle School and the mascot be the “Beans.”
“Who would not cheer for the Beans?” she asked jokingly.
Then she turned serious. “If you do not honor history, you have nothing. If you don’t have any history, you have nothing to judge the actions of today,” she said.
This is when Spears stood up and declared that the desegregation of 1954 in San Angelo was not executed because everyone loved each other and wanted to attend school together as mixed communities. She claimed the board back then was chasing federal dollars and desegregation was one way to obtain federal funding. Then she suggested her opponents were engaged in something more nefarious than arguing over school names.
“Be honest. This is not just about Lee and Reagan. Take your sheets off,” she admonished the mostly white participants gathered there to support the name of Lee Middle School.
Superintendent Carl Dethloff said the school board will decide upon three outcomes in October. Either the board votes to remove the name, keep it the same, or study the issue further.