As an organization founded on the mission of improving educational opportunities for all students in Baton Rouge, we are compelled to address the issue of renaming Lee High School and the subsequent comments in defense of the school’s name by Board Member Connie Bernard. In a school system serving more than 70 percent Black students, we believe it is critical that the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board demonstrate a commitment to anti-racism and the examination of how systemic racism persists within our school system.
The naming of schools after Confederate heroes is rooted in history — a history of intimidation, degradation and racism against Black people in America. It’s important to note that Lee High School was not opened until September 1959, at a time when a growing number of schools around the country were being named after Confederate figures as a result of backlash against the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and the civil rights movement. In order to move forward, we must honestly acknowledge the failings of the past and listen to those who feel marginalized.
We agree with the community that the time for changing this school’s name is well overdue. In the Summer of 2016, the school board had an opportunity to respond to community concerns and rename the school but stopped short of totally abandoning “Lee.” We support the board in adopting a name more representative of the unity, strength, and resilience of Baton Rouge.
In furtherance of our commitment to being a part of educational solutions for all students in our community, NSBR offers philanthropic support to assist in the renaming. Specifically, once a new name has been selected by the board and community, we offer funds to replace the school’s exterior signage as a first step towards a new beginning for the school, its students, alumni, and community.
We are also deeply concerned by the discourse that has led to this moment of introspection and reckoning. In particular, Board Member Bernard’s comment, “I would hope that they would learn a little bit more about General Lee, because General Lee inherited a large plantation and he was tasked with the job of doing something with those people who lived in bondage to that plantation, the slaves, and he freed them,” is tone-deaf and lacks empathy and understanding for the students and families she represents.
Further, the lack of understanding and empathy between colleagues in moments like this demonstrates that like many organizations, including our own, the school board is in real need of anti-racism exploration and education in order to be prepared to best serve all of our students. NSBR is pledging our support to fund this effort by investing in training partners the school board identifies to help lead them through this important and timely work.
We are at a pivotal moment for our city. With the selection of a new superintendent this week, Baton Rouge has an opportunity to make transformational gains in delivering an excellent education to every child. We cannot do that without coming together across lines of difference and lifting up all children and families.