Robert E. Lee High School. Photo by Jaime Solis.
Robert E. Lee High School is in the North East Independent School District. Credit: Jaime Solis / San Antonio Report

Every Texas student should study Robert E. Lee, a figure who deserves his prominent place in the history books, even on a battlefield pedestal, and especially in the memories of all who understand the defining nature of the American Civil War and its permanent imprint on the American character.

Give Gen. Lee his storied place in history. Mount him in marble and granite on his great horse Traveller at Gettysburg, where a statue can be viewed in context. But don’t elevate him as a symbol of moral excellence for succeeding generations to emulate.  He betrayed his country and his oath, and he led the armies that sought to perpetuate slavery in the South.

That’s why San Antonio should not have a high school named for Lee, even if his life story includes chapters in San Antonio, in the Texas Hill Country at Fort Mason, and along the Texas-Mexico border as a young officer. As this nation continues to evolve – the evidence includes two decisions this week by the U.S. Supreme Court, one to recognize the legal right of gays to marry, and the other the government’s right to extend health care to its neediest citizens – debating a high school’s name change should be a learning moment for the community.

For starters, we should ask why so many schools, libraries and other public buildings are named for men, while so few are named for women. How many of the San Antonio’s civil rights leaders are honored on buildings outside the inner city? State by state over the last 20 years, we have wrestled with the beloved yet denigrating mascot names and images employed for decades at many universities and K-12 schools. One by one, most but not all of those insulting images have fallen by the wayside. Civilization as we know it did not collapse in the wake of such changes.

I am no expert, but I’ve read extensively about the Civil War and the men on both sides who stood at the forefront of the war’s defining political and military moments. I’ve also made a periodic study of Texas textbooks, which often cater to the lowest common denominator of a review committee, and I can tell you this: Texas public school children never come to terms, fully and profoundly, with the true dimensions of human bondage in our nation’s history and this state’s part in defending slavery and violently suppressing those who opposed it. Nor do our students truly study Lee’s moral failing when he chose to serve Virginia over the United States, turning down President Lincoln’s offer to command Union troops, and never seriously considering the third option of surrendering his officer’s commission and retiring to civilian life.

Screenshot of David Brooks during his recent TED talk.
Screenshot of David Brooks during his recent TED talk.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, stirred the Lee debate anew Friday morning with publication of his commentary titled, “The Robert E. Lee Problem.” Brooks is both journalist and moralist, a term I don’t use lightly and would bestow on few others in this trade. Anyone who follows what I write knows I wrote admiringly of Brooks last year when he visited Trinity University for a speech and to meet with students.

(Read more: David Brooks on Character and Citizenship.)

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julían Castro has made his own views on the matter known in a number of social media postings, including his response this week on Facebook to an announced decision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to support removal of a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the state capital grounds in Kentucky.

Outgoing Mayor Julián Castro talks friends and citizens before the mayoral election. Photo by Scott Ball.
Outgoing Mayor Julián Castro talks with friends and citizens before the mayoral election. Photo by Scott Ball.

Sec. Castro wrote: “Glad to see this. In San Antonio, North East ISD should call together a group of board members, students and community members to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School as well. There are other, more appropriate individuals to honor and spotlight as role models for our young people.”

Good idea, but why limit the conversation to the school district? I would invite readers who stand on both sides of this issue to read the Brooks column with an open mind and agree that our city can revisit this subject, unafraid to re-examine long-held beliefs.

Not so long ago, incidents of racial violence, however horrid, were not enough to force the lowering of Confederate flags. Times change, as we witness now. Someday – soon, I hope – we will see the continuing episodes of mass murder in our country lead to more sensible gun control laws.

The key in any civil society, in my view, is not to see such issues from one’s personal point of view, but to see such matters from the perspective of the collected citizenry. That’s why people who are personally uncomfortable with gay marriage because of their religious beliefs or social upbringing, should understand that the greater good demands change even if they cannot make that change individually. Let the law reflect the greater good, not individual mindsets.

In the case of Robert E. Lee, a great general and a good man in many ways, there is no escaping the fact the society he defended, and led men to fight and die for, was one where black men and women would still live in chains, physically and metaphorically, to serve nothing more than the economic needs and wants of wealthy white Southerners. Do we expect our fellow black citizens to accommodate the misguided desire to preserve Lee’s name on a school, the very place where we send children to learn?

There are, of course, other Confederate symbols in this city and many other public places in Texas that bear the names of lesser Confederate leaders and pro-slavery figures in history. But Lee stands as the single most recognizable leader in the war to preserve slavery. Addressing the matter is entirely in our hands in this city, regardless of what is done in other places where we do not exercise the same oversight and responsibility. If we do act, it’s entirely possible others elsewhere will follow in our footsteps.

As we take down the Confederate flag from its last places of honor, so, too, it is time to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from its places of honor and leave him to the pages of history.

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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.