San Diego Unified may consider renaming Robert E. Lee Elementary School

In this diverse, working-class section of Paradise Hills, some residents never connected the name of their elementary school with the Confederacy. Others are aware of the link but unfazed by it.

Support for a name change at Robert E. Lee Elementary School is percolating, even if no one in the community has called for one.

At the urging of Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), the school on Friday will hold the first of two community forums to discuss whether Lee should be scrubbed from the campus marquee.

Gonzalez approached San Diego Unified School District about renaming Lee before the June massacre at a predominantly black South Carolina church. The suspect has been charged with a federal hate crime, and online photos show him posing with Confederate flags.

The shooting led to a nationwide movement questioning whether public institutions should continue enshrining the names of historical figures linked to slavery and the Confederacy.

"I feel strongly that we shouldn't have a school named for a Confederate general who fought against the U.S. over the right to own people," Gonzalez said. "I have an African American child. That any child, especially those whose ancestors were enslaved, should attend a school named for a Confederate general seems wrong."

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Gov. Jerry Brown this month vetoed a bill co-written by Gonzalez that would have banned naming California schools, roads and other public facilities after Confederate leaders.

In his Oct. 11 veto statement, Brown called the national movement to remove Confederate flags from state buildings in the South "long overdue." But he said decisions about naming and renaming schools should be made locally.

"Local governments are laboratories of democracy which, under most circumstances, are quite capable of deciding for themselves which of their buildings and parks should be named, and after whom," Brown wrote.

The legislation would have expedited Gonzalez's effort to rename Lee. Now, any attempt to rename the school must follow San Diego Unified's lengthy school-naming process.

The school board has not sanctioned Gonzalez's attempt to find a new name for Lee. The board will formally consider the request if there is community consensus, district spokeswoman Ursula Kroemer said.

Kroemer said the district has received calls and emails opposing a name change, but none supporting it.

Gonzalez sent a team to knock on doors in the area around Lee to discuss the possibility of renaming the school. The neighborhood canvassing — which included educating some on the history of the Civil War general — resulted in 93 residents saying they support a new name, and 34 opposing the effort, Gonzalez said.

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When Tony Martinez walks his great-granddaughter to and from Lee every day, he does not think about the school's namesake. Instead he sees a community institution that educated his late son and other relatives.

"There is no need to change the name. Lee is our school, it always has been. I don't even think about Robert E. Lee when I think about this school," he said.

Adelle Herrington understands why some might want to change the name of the school attended by her son. But to what end, she wonders. What about Thomas Jefferson Middle School, named for a slave owner?

"If they go this route, they are going to have to research every single school name, including those named for our founding fathers," Herrington said.

Gonzalez has heard the argument before.

"I'm not sure where you draw the line," she said. "But let's start with a Confederate general."

Among school names suggested to Gonzalez to replace Lee is Archie Buggs, a black police officer who grew up in Paradise Hills and was shot dead during a 1978 traffic stop.

San Diego's Lee Elementary School is among two in California. The other is in Long Beach, where the school district is in the midst of a similar process to engage the community on a potential name change.

maureen.magee@utsandiego.com

Maureen Magee writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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