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As Confederate monuments fall, Tampa's Robert E. Lee Elementary could get name change

Robert E. Lee Elementary School was given its name in 1943. Supporters of a name change want to rename it Woodson Elementary, after a historian who lobbied for Black History Month.
Robert E. Lee Elementary School was given its name in 1943. Supporters of a name change want to rename it Woodson Elementary, after a historian who lobbied for Black History Month.
Published Jun. 14, 2017

TAMPA — Add the Hillsborough County School District to institutions that are being asked to reconsider their monuments to the Old South.

Robert E. Lee Elementary School might get a new name.

But that process, something that is already happening in school districts around the country, will take at least 18 months, according to a district policy designed to avoid frequent name changes.

Tamara Shamburger, one of the board's newest members, wants to pursue the change anyway.

"Some will say this is just a black thing, but to me this is an American thing," Shamburger said near the end of Tuesday's board meeting. "It's about doing the right thing."

Superintendent Jeff Eakins said he will return to the board after researching what a name change would require.

Named for the most famous Confederate general of the Civil War, Lee is a small school in Ybor City that doesn't make a big show of its legacy.

It calls itself the "Lee Elementary Magnet School of World Studies and Technology." Its student body of just fewer than 300 is 57 percent African-American and 19 percent white.

But, as with other flags and monuments in public places, it exists increasingly as a symbol of a past that many say should not be celebrated. School districts from Orlando to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., have had discussions about changing the names of schools named for Confederate generals and New Orleans recently removed four monuments to the Old South.

Had Lee's side prevailed in the Civil War, Shamburger said, "a majority of our students (there) would be slaves."

Knowing Shamburger planned to bring up the subject, speakers lined up to address the seven-member board on both sides of the issue.

"There was a time in which this country did a lot of things to those who had no choice in the matter," said Eddie Adams, a radio host and sometime political candidate. "Naming and littering the South with a lot of symbolic buildings, statutes, other things that have come to pass and folks look at them differently."

Referring to Shamburger, Adams said, "There's only one of you that looks like me that's up there." But "all of you represent me and this community."

Tuesday's speakers included Confederate enthusiasts such as David McCallister, who described Lee as "a great American, and his virtues are worthy of being studied and adopted."

McCallister cited "a valid, legitimate survey" of 500 area voters that found 89 percent opposed renaming the school.

"To anyone who says that the time is right to do so, I say, is it?" McCallister said. "Listen to the polls. Read the polls. Listen to the people. Be in touch, not out of touch."

But Tampa activist Michelle Patty said she never took part in a poll.

"I stand here today asking that this board do what is correct and what is right," she said. "This is 2017. It is time that we stand up for what is right."

Lee's defenders pointed to his military record.

"He was a son of a Revolutionary War hero," said St. Petersburg lawyer Andy Strickland.

"His father served under Gen. (George) Washington. Two of Lee's uncles signed the Declaration of Independence. Who knew that? Why not remove their names from the Declaration of Independence as well, right?"

Strickland blamed "radical leftists" for the move to rename the school.

A history, provided by the district, says Lee Elementary was built in 1906 by volunteers from the surrounding neighborhood. First called Michigan Avenue Grammar School, it was given the Lee moniker in 1943, when the street was renamed Columbus Drive.

Lee became Hillsborough's first magnet school in 1993, with a focus on technology. The world studies program was added in 2008.

Supporters of the name change want the school to be called Woodson Elementary, after Carter G. Woodson, a historian from the late 19th century who lobbied extensively to establish Black History Month.

Hearing that renaming Lee Elementary might take 18 months, board member Susan Valdes argued for a faster resolution, noting that the board discussed the issue more than a year ago without taking action.

"The urgency is now, when you look at what is happening across this nation," Valdes said.

To Shamburger, changing the name would set a tone in the community where black citizens often feel disenfranchised.

"This board has an opportunity to not only change history in the way we've done things for so long in this district," she said. "But this is an educational opportunity for us. We can show our students the appropriate way to change a negative to a positive."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol.