SAN DIEGO — A lawmaker called Tuesday on the San Diego Unified School District to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary School because of the namesake’s ties to the Confederacy.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, sent a letter to SDUSD Superintendent Cindy Marten that referred to the shooting deaths of the pastor and eight parishioners of a historic black church in Charleston. The school district did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the issue.
The attack is being investigated as a hate crime. The 21-year-old accused gunman, who is white, had posed with a Confederate flag in photos posted online.
South Carolina’s governor has since called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the statehouse.
“The flag in particular, and anyone associated with this army, in general, have been associated with intolerance, racism and hate, none of which have a place in our schools,” Gonzalez wrote.
“It is also important to note that the area in which the elementary school is located is truly representative of South San Diego — a vibrant, multiethnic community with a strong African-American presence that deserves a school named after someone we can all admire,” her letter says. “Robert E. Lee is not that person.”
San Diego Unified School District spokeswoman Ursula Kroemer released a statement regarding Gonzalez’s letter:
We are sensitive to the concerns voiced by some members of the community that it may not be appropriate to have a school named after Robert E. Lee. We see this as a wonderful opportunity to have a larger community dialogue with students, staff and families about the school name and look at the history and research surrounding Lee in order to make a collectively informed decision about changing the name or retaining it. Should the community determine a name change is appropriate, there is a clear process for school naming that is inclusive of a variety of stakeholders and provides clear rationale for a new name.
The school located on Rancho Hills Drive in the Paradise Hills area is known as Lee Elementary and was opened on January 12, 1959.
“Our historical school data show it was always Robert E. Lee Elementary and that the reason for the name selected was “American soldier and educator,” Kroemer said. “The student body is extremely diverse, representing Hispanic (75.6%), Filipino (6.6%), Multi-racial (6.4%), African American (5.5%), Caucasian (2.5%), Pacific Islander (1.9%) and Asian (0.3%) families.”
The Confederate Civil War general left a mixed legacy on race and slavery.
In an 1856 letter responding to a speech by President Franklin Pierce, he called the institution of slavery “a moral and political evil.” In the same letter, however, he wrote that slaves were “immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially,” and were going through a “painful discipline” necessary for “further instruction as a race.”
Historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who went through a cache of Lee’s papers discovered in 2002 in a Virginia bank, told US News & World Report that Lee owned slaves that were inherited by his wife, and that he kept them working five years after they expected to be freed.