Thursday, December 14, 2017
Perspective

Perspective: In 1958, I was the only Jewish first-grader at Tampa's Robert E. Lee Elementary. Here's why the name should change.

It's 1958 in Tampa, I'm 6 years old and my school is named after Gen. Robert E. Lee. I'm the only Jewish kid in class.

The Ku Klux Klan frequently held rallies in our neighborhood and protests at the Knights of Columbus. They paraded in public and operated with impunity. During my daily walk to and from school, I passed a local sundry store that posted a sign in the window: "Jews, colored and dogs not served." My parents had survived the Holocaust, and this is how we were treated.

The Tampa Jewish community was small then and, in the politically conservative Tampa of the time, sought to unite in strength through joining in moral support with other minorities. The slogan of the Jewish community was the Yiddish zye schteal ("be quiet"). And quiet we were.

Working quietly, a few prominent leaders banded together with our Italian friends to quietly relocate the regional headquarters of the KKK out of town. We worked quietly to find and hire immigrants to fill jobs as Tampa grew. We took care of our own and anyone else we could help, even setting up a welcome wagon committee to warmly greet and assist in the settlement of new immigrants.

Yet, there were times when we could not zye schteal. We voiced concern to those who would listen, including our political leaders. I recall going with my father to a lunch meeting with U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons, a thoughtful, empathetic and responsive man who had parachuted into France on D-day. He could easily suss out hatred, evil and bigotry. He identified with the common person, and we knew he had our back.

I was not hard to spot in the first grade at Robert E. Lee Elementary School. When she took roll, the teacher would call out every pupil by first name: Johnny, Tom, Jane. Except me. I was "Abraham Jacob Wasserberger."

My parents asked the teacher to call me Jerry, the Americanization of Jacob. She refused. I began to call myself Jerry anyway, but in class she always called me "Abraham."

As a young Jewish boy at Robert E. Lee Elementary School, I discovered that fellow 6-, 7- and 8-year-old classmates did not come to their bigotry and racism in a vacuum. They had been taught.

Within a few years, I organized an immigrants club made up of kids in grades 3 through 6 throughout the school. I learned that positive change was possible if and only if I could get the right people to join the club. Our common bond was to protect and help each other and our families.

The teachers and administrators at Robert E. Lee Elementary knew about the brawls, hate-filled speech and institutional racism that existed on school grounds, but did nothing. In sixth grade, an interschool challenge was laid down between a gang of bullies — kids from the Hillsborough County Children's Home — and our little immigrants club. The fight would take place at a baseball field several blocks off school property. Word of the brawl spread throughout the school. Tensions were high.

It was a little after 3 p.m. on Nov. 21, 1963, when the crowd gathered. The main event was to be a one-on-one fist fight between the leaders of both groups. A boy named Todd represented the Children's Home, and I was to fight for the immigrants club. We circled each other, kicking up dust, as the heat of day rose.

Just as we made contact, prepared to clash until one of us cried uncle, a powerful hand grabbed my shirt and pulled me back. It was one of the teachers from Robert E. Lee. "What are you boys fighting about?" he asked. Todd screamed, "He is a no-good Jew." I yelled back: "My friends and I have been defending ourselves against these punks for several years. What have we done to deserve any of this?"

The crowd grew silent. The teacher directed us to shake hands, break up the gathering and go home. The next day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

I wish I could say things got better. The school was somber for several days after the president's death, but then the vitriol returned, with some students calling for a rematch.

In fact, the same teacher who broke up our fight on the baseball field would embarrass me in sixth grade by posing questions on material we had not studied, then calling on me to answer. Students would say, "Ab-ie Ba-by got the answer wrong!"

There are more than 200 schools named for a Confederate, and the grammar school I attended hadn't even become Robert E. Lee Elementary until 1943. Built in 1906 by volunteers from the surrounding neighborhood, it had started life as Michigan Avenue Grammar School.

The school became Hillsborough's first magnet school in 1993 and softened its name to "Lee Elementary Magnet School of World Studies and Technology." Its current student body of just fewer than 300 is 57 percent African-American and 19 percent white.

But the name Lee still refers to Robert E. Lee, which is why people are appropriately asking the school board to change its name to something more decent and hopeful.

The board discussed the issue just a few days ago, but because of district policy that stretches the process out for 18 months, the name might not change until next year.

If we are to see progress in our midst, then it will be up to each of us not to zye schteal, but to get involved in social justice activities — Tikun Olam — to heal the world, to protect the vulnerable and give voice to the positive transformation of our American vision.

Guided by what happened to me as a child, I preferred to strengthen and secure Jewish life full-time. Now 42 years later, I'm still working at it. May we continue to work toward an enduring and promising future.

Abe J. Wasserberger is senior vice president for Israel and Global Philanthropy at the Jewish Agency for Israel, based in Baltimore.

 
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