California assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez joined the San Diego chapter of the National Action Network and the San Diego Black Police Officers' Association on Wednesday afternoon (December 2) to call for a name change to Robert E. Lee Elementary in Paradise Hills. A community meeting to discuss the proposal, the second to be held, was scheduled to happen later in the evening.
"When community members came to me and said, 'Can you believe we have a school named Robert E. Lee?' I didn't know," Gonzalez told media assembled at City of Grace Church in Lemon Grove. "We don't expect the namesakes of our schools to be perfect. But we do expect the defining moment in their life is something that we can look up to. But the defining moment in Lee's life was the decision to take on the United States so that millions of African Americans could remain enslaved in the name of states' rights."
Gonzalez said she'd anticipated filing a request to change the name of the school would be a "no-brainer" — she was dismayed at the yearlong process that ensued.
"I had no idea that we'd be fighting a school district in the name of process to have a popular vote. The district didn't have a popular vote when they decided to eliminate meat on Mondays."
National Action Network chapter president Shane Harris promised rallies involving "several hundred" protesters descending on San Diego Unified School District and possible action from national network leader Al Sharpton if action isn't promptly taken.
"We know the history of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general who clearly doesn't articulate the community of Paradise Hills," Harris said. "We will see the name change, or else we're coming for you. We will rally, we will do whatever we have to in order to ensure that the change happens."
Ben Kelso of the Black Police Officers' Association suggested the school instead be named after Archie Buggs, a former officer who grew up in Paradise Hills and was killed in 1978 while conducting a traffic stop near the school.
"This is not about revising history but about correcting mistakes," Kelso said, echoing Gonzalez's sentiment that Lee's acts of war against the U.S. make his name an odd choice, particularly in a school christened in 1959, nearly a century after the Civil War and in the midst of the civil rights movement.
"The Confederate states were effectively a foreign nation conducting war upon us,” said Kelso. “In 50 years, will be celebrating Osama bin Laden with a school in the United States?"
The community meeting, held later Wednesday evening, pitted students — a majority of current third- through fifth-graders are in favor of a name change — against adults in the community, many of whom felt the name should live on out of a sense of tradition. Some were insulted by what they saw as an intrusion from outside the community.
But "it's beyond a process, beyond a survey. It's time to change the name of this school," Gonzalez concluded. "I can't imagine any black child having to attend a school with the namesake of somebody who hoped that their ancestors would stay enslaved."