TAMPA HEIGHTS, Fla. (WTSP) – The debate over whether a Tampa Heights Elementary School should continue to honor Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee has been ongoing within the community for years, but there has been little official action until now.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, board member Tamara Shamburger introduced discussions that could formally begin the process of renaming the elementary school that Shamburger says honors the wrong side of history.
“We need to name it to something that represents these students,” she said.
The conversation on renaming the school comes at a time when local and state governments across the nation are revisiting their commitment to Confederate monuments and other relics of the Confederate past. Some argue that because the Confederacy wanted to preserve slavery, continuing to celebrate Confederate heroes ignores the pain slavery caused and the racist legacy that carries on today.
“This is not some case of revisionist history. This is not at all changing history,” said Shamburger. “You don’t have to have a name on a school, you don’t have to have Confederate statues, you don’t have to have flags flying over the interstate to understand or remember what the Confederate soldiers or the American Civil War was about.”
“What you need is a book. Maybe even a museum. So, this school is not going to change anything. The American Civil War did not happen right here on Columbus Avenue, so changing the name is not going to change history.”
Lee Elementary sits on Columbus Avenue in Tampa Heights, a community that is majority African American. And although it is a magnet school and attracts students from outside of the community as well, the school’s population is 57 percent black.
“It’s just long overdue,” said Shamburger. “We have to make sure that it represents the students here.”
When 10News first reported on the issue in late May, Tampa Bay History Center historian Rodney Kite-Powell weighed in on the difficulty the country faces as it deals with this part of its past.
“You can always find a characteristic or part of [someone’s] past that could disqualify them from having something named after them," Kite-Powell said. "So, the question can be asked, ‘Where does it end?’”
But Kite-Powell admitted the vestiges of slavery make the conversation difficult.
“When you have something so abhorrent as slavery, it’s hard to rectify that with people’s images of people and institutions that, in their mind, don’t represent that,” Kite-Powell said.
Community members both black and white have varying opinions of what should happen with Lee school.
Jeff Vecera, who is white, told 10News in May that he was moved to action after hearing New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu speak about why Confederate monuments in his city should be taken down.
““Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis…they’re not heroes. They were traitors. They fought against our United States government,” said Vecera. “[Lee] fought that the white man was better than the black man, and that’s got to be kind of a disheartening thing for a 5-year-old."
Vecera said he hoped the school board would take swift action to rename the school.
"It's ridiculous to put these people on a pedestal who tried to keep a race of people down," Vecera said.
His sentiments were in line with those of Lee alumna Kayla Brock, who lives right across the street.
“It’s not appropriate anywhere, but especially over here [in Tampa Heights] where African American people are 95 percent of the population,” Kayla Brock said. “I would love to see the name of this school changed … to me [Lee] stands for a person that is pro-slavery. He led the Confederate Army.”
While Lee did write in 1856 that slavery was a moral and political evil, he did own slaves through inheritance. He eventually freed them, but not until after they helped make his property profitable.
But for some in the community, the conversation is less about symbolism than it is about tradition. Some neighbors said they wanted to keep the name because it’s been that way for as long as they can remember, and have personal memories attached to the school.
Others say they don’t see the name as a bad thing for the community.
“It’s a part of history, even though it’s bad history,” said Brenda Smedley, who has a son attending Robert E. Lee Elementary. “It just represents a part of life back then that we lived in and we survived through. I don’t see where it would be negative.”
Hillsborough County spokeswoman Tanya Arja said the process of changing a school name takes at least 18 months after the school board agrees to take up the issue so the community can have time to weigh in on the decision.