My name is Michael Powells. I’m a 1988 graduate of Robert E. Lee High School in San Antonio, Texas. I’m making this statement in response to the current attempt to rename the school I have so many fond memories of and still love. I’m not an activist and I don’t consider myself a trailblazer - although I do now live in Oregon, but I’m still a Spurs fan!
For all four years that I was a student at Robert E. Lee High School, I was a member of the marching band. I wore the Confederate Battle Flag with silver/grey background on my chest, playing the saxophone. Before I graduated in 1988 I did some research and discovered that I was the first Black person to march for four years in the Robert E. Lee High School Band. I cannot tell you how proud that made me feel, but my pride in that accomplishment wasn’t rooted in feeling excluded or discriminated against.
I never felt that I was negativity affected by the name of Robert E. Lee High School since I lived in the Lee attendance area and that was my school. I’ve always been a self-aware Black American, but I never had negative feelings towards Robert E. Lee High School or the history of its namesake.
Back then, the NEISD didn’t have a School Choice Policy to allow students to attend any NEISD High School they wanted. I lived in the Robert E. Lee attendance area, so that’s where I went. In the era I attended Robert E. Lee High School, where you lived determined where you went to school. I realize there are many more options now in terms of school choice, private schools or home schooling, but I went to Robert E. Lee High School because that’s where I was supposed to be.
Twenty-Seven years later, I’ve come to some conclusions about my Alma Mater.
Robert E. Lee would have had schools named after him no matter what side he chose to fight on in the Civil War. He was a great man and that fact was celebrated on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line before, during and after the War. Abraham Lincoln offered Robert E. Lee the command of the Union Army, but when Virginia seceded, he chose to defend his home State of Virginia. His wife, Mary Custis, was George Washington’s granddaughter and his Arlington, Virginia Estate housed many of Washington’s artifacts.
As with any great man of History, Robert E. Lee was a product of his times but also transcended those times. The years preceding the Civil War were complex and volatile. The choice Robert E. Lee made to defend Virginia is not one that we, 150 years later, can simply dismiss or judge.
As for now, I understand the reaction of many in our country to the church shooting in South Carolina, but not for the reaction to one picture of the alleged shooter with a Confederate flag.
Here in the Pacific Northwest there are people flying the same flag, which is their right, protected by Amendment 1 of The Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech – just as it gave that right to the NEISD Board in 1958 when they named the new high school at 1400 Jackson Keller after Robert E. Lee.
It’s been suggested by former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro that the name of Robert E. Lee High School has a negative impact on the African-American students who attend there today. But he doesn't speak for those of us of African descent who have already graduated from Robert E. Lee High School and he does not speak for all the Black students who are there today.
As the Bible says, “You see the speck in your brother’s eye, but you don’t notice the log in your own eye.” Mr. Castro should remember that the high school he graduated from, Thomas Jefferson, is named after a slave owner, while Robert E Lee never owned slaves and the slaves he did inherit through his marriage to Mary Custis were freed in 1862 – before the Emancipation Proclamation was ever signed. Thomas Jefferson had several other character flaws as well, including fathering at least 6 children with Sally Hemmings, a slave woman who lived on his Monticello Estate. But, Thomas Jefferson was still a great man, a Founding Father and almost as good a role model as Robert E. Lee.
History is there to learn from in both positive and negative ways. If we start ridding ourselves of this history, other historical perspectives are next and we will loose what it means to be American.
ROBERT E LEE throughout the years!
Robert E. Lee Marching Band 1984-1988
Robert E. Lee High School Class of 1988