As Tulsa Public Schools ponders the future of Lee Elementary School’s name, a survey appearing to be of TPS origin has circulated that calls Robert E. Lee a “cruel” slave owner who encouraged severe beatings of some of the slaves he owned.
However, the survey was not created by the school system, according to spokeswoman Emma Garrett-Nelson.
“We want to make our community aware of a survey that appears to be from Tulsa Public Schools and asks participants about whether Lee Elementary should be renamed. This survey is not from Tulsa Public Schools. We are working to determine where the survey originated, but please be aware that this is not a district-sponsored survey,” Garrett-Nelson said in a statement.
The survey bears the TPS logo and is based on “Qualtrics” software, which TPS has used in surveys before, Garrett-Nelson said.
Lee Elementary School, nestled in Tulsa’s Brookside area, found itself caught in the crossfire earlier this year as protests erupted at the sites of Confederate monuments across the nation. Built in 1918 — more than 50 years after the end of the Civil War — the school was nonetheless named after the Confederate General.
In fact, Oklahoma didn’t even gain statehood until 1907.
An online petition urging TPS administration to change the school’s name began circulating not long after violence erupted in Charlottesville, Va., in August 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.
While some other schools — including some in Oklahoma City — quickly renamed school named after divisive figures, TPS took a more measured approach. The school system created an advisory group of regular citizens to look at each school’s past and background and the origin of its name.
Eventually the school board will decide what, if any, schools need a new name.
“The Community Advisory includes community members, faith leaders, educators, partner organizations, and local business leaders,” Garrett-Nelson said in a statement. “The membership of the group is designed to be representative of the diverse communities served by Tulsa Public Schools and will ultimately present a report of their findings to the Tulsa Board of Education. We look forward to continuing to share updates on the work of the council over the coming months.”
It asks obvious questions, such as race, gender, ethnicity, political affiliation and income, but also seeks to “gauge … community understanding of (Lee’s) history” with a short quiz.
The survey is multiple choice and asks, among other questions, if Lee was a slave owner, which wars he fought in, and asks those taking the quiz to guess which of a series of quotes belong to Lee.
The quiz ends while asking if the name of the school should be changed.
It’s unclear what popular sentiment about the name of the school is, as the majority of the furor has died down since August. Not long after the petition to change the school’s name began being circulated, The Frontier requested emails sent from the public to TPS Superintendent Deborah Gist about the topic.
Of the 18 emails reviewed by The Frontier, 10 voiced vocal disapproval of any attempted name change. Only four emails professed support for the idea of renaming the school.
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.”
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.”