More than a dozen emails sent to Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist show a wide range of emotions regarding the potential of a name change for Lee Elementary School.
An online petition urging TPS administration to change the school’s name began circulating earlier this week following the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Va., during a clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters. One woman there was killed and many more were injured after a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of protesters.
Lee Elementary School, built in 1918, has found itself in the center of controversy having been named after former Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Activists across the country have begun targeting Confederate statues as Neo-Nazis and white supremacists have held public rallies.
But emails to Gist show a much more muddled picture in terms of public sentiment for the name change. Of the 18 emails she received, 10 voiced vocal disapproval of any attempted name change. Only four emails professed support for the idea of renaming the school.
The emails were provided to The Frontier via an Open Records Act request.
One emailer urged a “calm approach” to the debate over the name change, given that young children will soon be in a school that could find itself the site of violent protests. The emailer noted that while their child attended Lee Elementary they had always feared a school shooter, but hoped the school would not come into a potential shooter’s “field of focus.”
Now they fear the school could be the epicenter of violence.
“The most vile and hateful now have an icon to defend,” the person wrote. “These are not people I know. But I know they are out there. They are not boogiemen. And it is crushing to have the building in which our greatest loves spend their most precious years be thrust into the spotlight.
“My ask is that TPS continue with a calm, measured and cadenced approach so as not to spark any of the tinder surrounding a(n) elementary school building.”
Another emailer said that “things like this are never easy decisions,” but offered a suggestion to rename the school after Waite Phillips, an oilman who built the Philtower and Philcade buildings in downtown Tulsa.
One email jokingly suggested selling naming rights to the schools such as is done with sports arenas.
“Imagine, (Quiktrip) elementary, Creek Nation Elementary, American Airlines Elementary, or my favorite, Hard Rock Elementary. ” the emailer wrote. “An added bonus to the name change is some revenue for the district. Just a thought. HAHA.”
But the most vocal emails were vociferously against renaming the 99-year-old school.
“This is no better than book burnings,” one emailer, who also offered that they were “not a Nazi or white Nationalist,” wrote to Gist. “ISIS tried rewriting history by destroying historical artifacts in Iraq. Is that really who want to emulate.”
“I am very upset that you all are concerning (sic) changing the name of Lee Elementary because some people in the community do not like the name,” one person wrote. “If you change the name of Lee Elementary …. you will need to change Booker T Washington and Mclain, because you will have some people in the community that don’t like the names of these schools.”
Another emailer wrote to Gist to say that “those people have had 99 years to get offended by the name” of the school, “and I have not read any news about someone suffering a catastrophic illness or death or acute emotional damage because of the name.”
That emailer likened the controversy to transgender rights, writing “who would have imagined that the nation would have to wrestle with such weighty issues as transgender bathrooms, materials that Planned Parenthood wants to have presented to Preschool Children that teach that Vaginas and Penises don’t identify Gender.”
One emailer called those opposed to the name “miscreants,” and told Gist “You will not appease this bunch of thugs. You will alienate the rest of us who have supported your previous efforts.”
TPS Superintendent Dr. Gist discusses TPS’s plans to review Tulsa school names after petition is filed to change the name of Lee Elementary
Posted by KOTV – News On 6 on Monday, August 14, 2017
Other emails didn’t necessarily support the name change, but did offer suggestions in the interim as the issue is debated. An emailer wrote to Gist and said “I understand that changing a school’s name is not something that can be done overnight,” but that one thing that could be done immediately “is to remove the framed portrait of Robert E. Lee that is featured prominently on a wall next to the school’s entrance.”
“When I took a tour of the school a few months ago, I was actually shocked to see this,” the person wrote. “Two African Americans were on the tour as well and I can imagine their disappointment in seeing the leader of the confederate army displayed so prominently in the school.”
Gist announced earlier in the week that she had discussed the names of TPS schools with board members prior to the Charlottesville riot, and was committed to “undertaking a full review of the names of all of our schools to ensure that our learning communities have names that are aligned with our values.
Gist said she was “working to identify community members to engage with us in this effort.”
Correction: This article previously identified the founder of the petition as being a graduate of Lee Elementary School. It has been corrected.