TAMPA, Fla. - The removal of Confederate flags and monuments across the country has reignited local debate about the name of an elementary school in Tampa Heights that honors Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Hillsborough County School Board Member Tamara Shamburger said it is time to have serious conversations about renaming the school that sits on Columbus Avenue, east of the Hillsborough River. Some neighbors in and outside of the community agree.
“Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis…they’re not heroes. They were traitors. They fought against our United States government,” said Jeff 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 says he drives past the school frequently, and the name bothers him, even though he is not African American.
"It's ridiculous to put these people on a pedestal who tried to keep a race of people down," Vecera said.
However, the suggestion to change the name is not met without resistance from others who say removing it erases a piece of history.
“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.”
But others find the name to be a relic that serves as a shameful and offensive reminder of our nation’s past. Having a school named in one’s honor suggests to the surrounding community that the namesake is a person to be celebrated, and some do not believe Lee deserves that esteem. So, for some, it’s not a question of erasing history, but trying to negotiate the most proper way to remember this part of American history.
“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.
"That’s exactly what they were for. They wanted to see black people not flourish. They were not fans of us for some reason.”
In an 1856 letter to his wife, Lee famously wrote that, “slavery, as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country.”
However, the letter continues on to call slavery a necessary discipline to help improve the race. Lee also owned slaves acquired through his in-laws that he freed, but not right away.
Some historians say we should be careful about moving too fast to remove monuments that remind us of our history, however ugly it might be.
“Learning about the past, I think is better than trying to cover up our past,” said Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center. “Because at least in learning, you can gain some insight. But hiding it and covering it and burying it, ultimately, are we doing it a service?”
Kite-Powell also cautions against the concept of “presentism,” which is holding historical figures to modern-day moral and ethical standards.
“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 also admits it’s hard to deny the impact our peculiar institution and its perpetuators have had on the U.S.
“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.
For Shamburger and others in the community, changing the name of Lee elementary would be a step toward reconciliation. She said the process must be approved by the board, and must also include at least 18 months of community input and dialogue. Shamburger says she is tolerant and respects all opinions on the issue, and will welcome them if the board moves forward with discussions on changing the name.