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PAISD reviews Confederate legacy

Letters prompt discussion surrounding school names

Activist Brittany “Bree” Newsome made headlines Saturday for scaling a 30-foot flagpole and removing the Confederate battle flag that waved over the South Carolina state Capitol.

The flag — seen by some as the hallmark for white supremacy — has been the center of a national debate sparked by the June 17 massacre of nine people shot and killed in a Charleston, S.C. church by Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old who confessed to targeting the historic black church as a means of retribution for “black on white crime.”

But in the debate fueled by racial tension and societal outrage — a steady state of American existence beginning with the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a saturation of police brutality cases following the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and the burning of seven black churches since Roof shot and killed nine in South Carolina last month — the flag is not the only Confederate legacy to come under fire.

State and federal monuments, history and government textbooks, and public schools named for Confederate leaders are being harpooned by people of all races and ethnicities for “white-washing” the war that tore the nation in two 150 years ago.

In light of recent events and spurred by an activist with Port Arthur roots, the Port Arthur Independent School District is reviewing its own stance in the national debate. The PAISD Board of Trustees and Superintendent Mark Porterie have been faced with the question, “Why, in a district with such a high African American student population, are there two elementary schools named for Confederate leaders?”

Port Arthur native Greg Richard emailed and visited with Porterie Tuesday to “revisit the memo” he sent to PAISD Board members in February 2007, asking the district to consider changing the names of Robert E. Lee and Dick Dowling elementary schools.

“No one ever responded back to me concerning this most serious issue of my tax money being used to perpetuate the legacy of treasonous slave owners who fought a war to preserve a cultural heritage (that) included white supremacy and slavery,” Richard’s Tuesday letter states. “I feel disrespected by the district for ignoring my request.”

Richard first approached the district about renaming the elementary schools after Robert E. Lee Elementary School was rebuilt — a major school bond project that involved tearing down the original structure built in 1929 and constructing a state-of-the-art facility in its place — Porterie said Wednesday.

In his original request, Richard asked the district to consider renaming the school “to something more suitable for this contemporary community.”

“No doubt, it would be an insult and show total irresponsibility if the current school district leaders spent the money of a predominantly African American community on perpetuating the legacy of a Confederate Civil War general,” Richard’s Feb. 5, 2007 memo states. “General Lee is widely recognized as a (Ku) Klux Klan icon as well as a slave owner in his day…. In addition, may I also suggest that the current Dick Dowling Elementary School be renamed? Dick Dowling was (an) anti-American Confederate ‘terrorist’ who fought to keep African Americans in slavery.”

Richard’s memo lists 12 suggestions of “famous” African Americans to rename the two schools after, including figures such as Malcolm X, Frederick Douglas, Nat Turner and Barbara Jacket. Richard writes “anything less by the district leadership is a classic example of black self hate.”

“This is a difficult, and sensitive, issue,” Porterie said Wednesday, adding the schools have kept the same names since they originally opened — Lee Elementary in 1929 and Dowling Elementary in 1969. “Now the buildings and the schools have their own history for us to think about when we have these discussions.”

Porterie said the district’s stance hasn’t changed since the time of Richard’s initial request. One person cannot dictate change in the district, even the superintendent himself.

“This has to be a community movement, a community discussion. It can’t just be one person to effect change,” Porterie said. “If the community came and asked the Board to consider renaming our schools, I think that would prompt the Board to discuss it further. Because when the Board makes a decision, they have to look at the entire community — not just one entity or one culture.

“We are open to having this discussion, but we don’t want it to be one-sided. I know the shootings and all the (Confederate flag) controversy in South Carolina have been getting a lot of attention — and a lot of it negative — but we can’t operate our district in a reactionary way. Whatever we do must be well thought out.”

Porterie said one thing has changed since Richard’s initial request back in 2007 — the district is not “predominantly African American” anymore.

The 2013-14 Texas Academic Performance Report compiled by the Texas Education Agency — the latest report available detailing demographics in public schools throughout the state — details the “ethnic distribution” of the district. According to the report, 45.2 percent of PAISD students are Hispanic. African Americans make up 44.9 percent of the student population, and all other ethnic groups make up the remaining 9.9 percent.

“Our demographics have changed. You can’t say Port Arthur ISD is predominantly African American anymore,” Porterie said. “Our Hispanic population is booming, and we have representation from a wide variety of cultures. I think if we were to consider renaming any of our schools, we would want to consider representing not just our African American students but our students from other cultures as well.”

Porterie said ultimately, renaming any of the schools will be a decision that comes from the PAISD Board of Trustees.

“If this is something the community says they want to pursue, it will be up to the Board to make that call,” he said. “If they decide to proceed and rename any of our facilities, they have a written policy to follow that will help them engage with the community to come up with suggestions for new names.”

A Wednesday article by the Texas Tribune cites 28 public schools in Texas named after Confederate soldiers Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Albert Sidney Johnston. Of those schools, the article states, five have a majority of white students.

Port Arthur ISD’s Robert E. Lee Elementary — tied with Jefferson Davis High in Houston ISD — is ranked third in the Tribune’s list for the most non-white students learning in a school named for a Confederate leader.

Twitter: @crhenderson90