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Long Beach school named for Robert E. Lee gives some pause after Charleston attack

For more than a century, going back to 1898, life at Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Long Beach trudged along with little if any controversy over its name.

Even as the demographics in the surrounding neighborhood and the students enrolled became ever more diverse, the fact that the school was named after the commanding general of the Confederate Army didn't seem to matter much.

But the massacre of nine black men and women praying inside a church in Charleston, S.C., and the arrest of a young white man who authorities say was motivated by racial hatred has likely forever altered the way America grapples with symbols of the Confederacy, from the flag itself to monuments and places named after famous figures of the rebellion.

"It seems odd to me that you have the Confederate general — the face of the Civil War — in one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the county," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a civil rights activist who is pushing the school to change its name.

The Long Beach school appears to be on a short list, along with one in San Diego, named after Lee. Last week, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) called on the San Diego Unified School District to rename the school. Over its history, California has not been a stranger to Confederate sympathies, with at least a dozen chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sprinkled through the state, including in San Jose, Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Kathy Pliska, 68, a Long Beach resident who lives near Robert E. Lee Elementary, said the church shooting has made her think hard about the school's name.

"It seems out of place and inappropriate," she said. "I'm definitely for renaming it because it's offensive."

Jessica Luzanilla, 29, who also lives near the school, said the name doesn't bother her as much as the Confederate battle flag and license plates do.

"But maybe it's time to recognize someone else," Luzanilla said. "Times have changed."

Chris Eftychiou, a spokesman for the Long Beach Unified School District, said officials have received only a few complaints, and the school board has not taken up the issue.

Susan Ogle, director of the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum in Wilmington, a military post built by the Union at the start of the Civil War, said it's no surprise to see the general's name on a school.

"There were considerable amounts of Confederate veterans that settled here at the time," Ogle said. "If you stopped and look at an Orange County cemetery, you're going to find a whole lot of Confederates that are buried there."

A Los Angeles Times article from 1921 reported about a visit of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to Long Beach.

Though the Golden State's role in the Civil War was mostly focused on preventing Confederate control of the West, the state for years saw split allegiances.

California's Gold Rush lured many Southerners to the state. Northern California was relatively loyal to the Union, which the state had joined in 1850, but there was considerable sympathy for the Confederacy in Southern California. The pro-slavery editor of the Los Angeles Star used the city's first newspaper as a pulpit to advocate splitting California into free and slave states.

The Pico Act of 1859 asked voters whether Southern California should be segregated from the rest of the state as a new territory. The act died when the Civil War broke out, Ogle said.

But Southern California still saw the rise of several pro-Confederacy groups, including the Knights of the Golden Circle and the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles.

El Monte and the Holcomb Valley were hot spots for Confederate sympathizers, Ogle said.

Most of the attention on Confederate symbols after the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has fallen on the flag. Photos of the suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof — who authorities believe wanted to start a race war — show him posing with the battle flag of the Confederacy. But increasing scrutiny has been heaped on the names of schools and monuments connected to the losing side of the Civil War.

Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that taking down the Confederate flag from public properties is an easier call compared with what to do about places that bear the name of figures like Robert E. Lee. While praising his personal integrity, warmth and courage on the battlefield, Brooks wrote: "While Lee may have opposed slavery in theory he did nothing to eliminate or reduce it in practice. On the contrary, if he'd been successful in the central task of his life, he would have preserved and prolonged it.... Unlike Lincoln he accepted the bondage of other human beings with bland complaisance."

Moreover, Brooks noted, Lee "supported the institution of slavery as a pillar of Confederate life. He defended the right of Southerners to take their slaves to the Western territories."

Hutchinson and civil rights leaders announced their campaign to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary in Long Beach through Change.org, an online platform supporting social, economic and environment movements.

Long Beach Councilman Daryl Supernaw said that although he has no jurisdiction over the naming of schools, he would be open to discussing a possible name change with residents.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Twitter: @latvives

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