The sound of drum taps and cheers echoed beneath the stands of North East Independent School District’s Heroes Stadium earlier this month as LEE High School students prepared for their first home football game of the season, and the first home game ever under its new name.
Over the past three years, dozens of schools named after Confederate leaders have been renamed amid a fierce national debate over Confederate symbols.
Despite vocal pushback from members of the school community, NEISD’s Robert E. Lee High School officially joined their ranks in August. The LEE in LEE High School is now an acronym for Legacy of Educational Excellence, not Robert E. Lee.
If the crowd at the football game is any indication, the school is still warming up to the idea.
“For seniors, at least, that have been the original name, it’s put a little bit of a grey cloud over the senior year,” said Jessica Sanchez, as she watched her daughter practice with her dance team an hour before kickoff.
LEE’s dance teams used to be called the Rebel Rousers and the Dixie Drillers, but now they’re the Royal Rubies and the Darling Drillers.In order to strip away any references to the Confederacy, it also changed the mascot, the fight song and retired some cheers.
The dancers still wear their signature cowboy hats, sequins and fringe. But Sanchez said it’s just not the same. She doesn’t think the school needed to change its name.
“It’s history. And history is history. We can’t change that. It had nothing to do with our era or any of these children,” Sanchez said.
Like many schools across the country named after Confederate leaders, San Antonio’s Robert E. Lee High School was founded in the 1950s, shortly after the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional.
There are currently more than 130 schools named after Confederate soldiers. According to Education Week, roughly three dozen others have changed their names since 2015, after the Charleston church shooting brought renewed attention to Confederate symbols.
As a senior at Lee High School last year, Kenny Strawn made changing the name his mission.
“(Robert E. Lee) was a general that led a rebellion against the United States, and in no other countries on earth do you see them glorifying generals of armies that fought against them,” said Strawn, adding that the white supremacist rally at Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville last August convinced he and his friends it was time Lee’s name to be removed from their school.
“It just didn’t seem like a place where everybody should feel safe should be named after somebody like that,” Strawn said.
But at the football game, it was hard to find anyone that supported the name change.
Watching her son play on the field below, Tiffany Laney said she didn’t have a problem with his school being called Robert E. Lee.
“Personally I felt like the name change shouldn’t have even took place. I mean, the money could have went to better resources,” Laney said.
Down in the student stands, where the mascot danced in their new costume, 10th grader Gaby Moncada said she’s not going to bother learning the new school song.
“Everyone’s been making fun of the name change and the new school song, so a lot of people don’t approve of it,” Moncada said. “I see where people thought it was kind of inappropriate because the south owned the slaves and everything. But I also think they shouldn’t have changed the name to begin with because it’s part of history. You can’t change it.”
The mascot used to be a Confederate soldier named Grumpy Gus. Now it’s a military service dog.
School officials say they spent about $300,000 replacing the mascot, removing the statue of Robert E. Lee in the school lobby and updating signs.
They plan to move that statue and other Confederate-themed artifacts to the school library.
Principal Nicole Franco said they implemented the effort over the summer to get a fresh start for the new school year.
“We can’t afford the distractions. We have four short years with students and we gotta keep plugging along at what we’re here to do,” Franco said.
District officials said it would have cost more than a million dollars if they hadn’t kept the name LEE and continued calling the athletics teams the Volunteers.
But it also helped the school community accept the new name.
Deborah Guevara, who went to Lee in the 80s, wasn’t happy about it at first. But sitting in the stands next to the band, watching her grandson Rudy perform, she said she’s mostly come around.
“I look at him and I get all teary-eyed. … (He’s) very smart. He’s going to be our Texas A&M boy — in the band. I know it. I have no doubt,” Guevara said.
And that, said Guevara, is why she’s fallen in love with the school all over again.
Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille