JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A compilation of video clips from the recent public meetings at Jacksonville’s Robert E. Lee High School garnered wide attention online, featuring controversial comments from some alumni speakers.
The meeting was part of a series of community sessions meant to collect public comments on a measure to rename nine schools in the Duval County school district due to the controversial history surrounding their namesakes.
The video shows 1966 Lee High School alumnus Frank Attaway speaking at the March 4 community meeting at Lee High School.
At a @DuvalSchools hearing about changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida, one white man says “slaves are to obey their masters,” while another says “if there are problems at the school it’s because it is predominately African-American.” pic.twitter.com/nyg1cmRWRA— Travis Akers (@travisakers) March 20, 2021
“We need to move on we need to learn how to get along with each other,” Attaway said. “If this high school is having problems, how long has it been predominantly African American?”
The student body at Robert E. Lee High School is 71.5% African American, according to data from the Florida Department of Education. News4Jax reached out to Attaway to clarify his comment but no response was received by the time of publication.
Joseph Finegan Elementary, Stonewall Jackson Elementary, Jefferson Davis Middle, Kirby-Smith Middle, J.E.B. Stuart Middle, Andrew Jackson High School, Jean Ribault High School, Jean Ribault Middle School are also included on the list for consideration. However, Robert E. Lee High School has been the subject of the greatest amount of public interest and debate, according to Duval County Public Schools spokesperson Tracy Pierce.
Two additional public meetings were added for Lee and Jackson high schools on the district’s School Name Change Tracker, an online tool meant to help the public keep track of opportunities for input.
Many of the comments in opposition of the name change have pointed to the consideration process itself, saying that even the discussion is widening the racial fracture in the community.
“They’re stirring up trouble. They’re looking for trouble to start up,” Attaway said, specifically referring to “groups like the Northside Coalition” of Jacksonville. “We need to move on. We need to learn how to get along with each other.”
Many critics of the campaign to rename the schools have suggested that those supporting the effort drop the “divisive” issue.
“This kind of bitterness is never assuaged, it only finds another target to attack and it moves on,” Lee High School Class of 1983 alumnus Harrison Conyers said.
Supporters of the name change say the names represent symbols of racism and that the ongoing discussions about renaming the schools are a difficult but necessary process.
“People are uncomfortable,” said Tammy Hodo, racial relations expert and founder of All Things Diverse. “These are uncomfortable conversations that must be had if we’re going to move along as a society. So I think it’s relevant, it’s timely and it’s something that we have to talk about.”
Though many supporters of the renaming say the progress made so far is encouraging, educator Amy Donofrio, who also co-founded the EVAC movement, said she’s worried about the damage the public meetings are having on young people.
“The process that is taking place right now is traumatizing, and damaging youth, and that there’s a responsibility for the school district to go about this in a way that protects our kids and also makes a very clear stand on where we stand on racism,” Donofrio said. “It shouldn’t be ambiguous. Everybody should know where DCPS stands on racism.”
Vincente Waugh, who graduated from Lee High School in 2020, said the school board should have taken decisive action as an elected body, rather than drawing out the public hearing process.
“Our leaders should have made the deciding factor for everyone ideally because this discussion does cause a stir,” Waugh said. “If leadership is effective, it would take means of action that represents all to eliminate the stir of this discussion.”
As of this article’s publication, Lee High School will be the subject of two more community meetings: Tuesday, March 23, and Thursday, March 25, both at 6 p.m. in the high school’s auditorium.