A school by any other name may be controversial
With the Abilene school board voting to rename four schools named for Confederate leaders, the national discussion over what to do with such designations has landed closer to home.
Naming schools after historic figures is tricky because society’s values shift over time. The court of public opinion can be fickle, choosing to focus on a single entry in an otherwise positive — or negative — lifelong biography. The past is never really over.
Consider the petition to change Sul Ross State University to Alpine State University. Before becoming one of the Confederacy’s youngest generals, Sul Ross was a Texas Ranger. After the war, he became a county sheriff, Texas senator, popular two-term state governor, and president of Texas A&M where he saved the college from closure.
Local school officials aren’t facing such decisions. Unless I’m mistaken, J.B. Stephens Elementary is the only public school operating in Brown County named for an individual. Kudos to Bangs for honoring an esteemed local physician and community leader this way.
Brownwood has Coggin Intermediate, named for the pioneer Brown County family whose surname is found throughout the city.
Let’s also remember historic R.F. Hardin School, named for the principal of the campus that before desegregation served generations of students.
Checking downtown, I’ll not jump to conclusions about Lee Street. Many downtown byways are named for local pioneers or locations (Chandler, Fisk, Mayes, Baker, Greenleaf, and Depot, for example). But Brownwood has at least one street definitely named for a Confederate general — Albert Sidney Johnston Drive in Camp Bowie. Johnston was the highest-ranking officer on either side to be killed during the Civil War. He was perhaps the South’s foremost commander before his death; then Lee emerged. Notably, Johnston was also a general in the Texian and U.S. Armies.
Today, all things named Robert E. Lee are easy targets, but where do we draw the line? What about other places with namesakes so obscure that they require Google searches?
How many knew that U.S. Army bases like Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Rucker in Alabama, Forts Benning and Gordon in Georgia, Fort Polk and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and Forts A.P. Hill, Pickett, and Lee in Virginia were named for Confederate officers? Each was established long after the Civil War, while the military was mobilizing to fight two world wars. Did Confederate names help Southern farmers feel better about forfeiting acreage?
Then, there are 21 Texas counties with names linked to the Confederacy. Consider Ector County (Odessa being the county seat), Foard (Crowell), Gregg (Longview), Hood (Granbury), Jeff Davis (Fort Davis), Lee (Giddings), Lubbock (Lubbock), McCulloch (Brady), Oldham (Vega), Randall (Canyon), Reagan (Big Lake), Reeves (Pecos), Scurry (Snyder), Starr (Rio Grande City), Stephens (Breckenridge), Terrell (Sanderson), Terry (Brownfield), Tom Green (San Angelo), Upton (Rankin), and Winkler (Kermit).
Military base names might be changed, but county names are likely locked in. The Confederacy’s legacy will be with us indefinitely.
That legacy is also with me, as a son of the South. My ancestors are mostly buried in South Carolina, with markers indicating which men served in the Confederate Army. It is what it is, as they say, but I’m pretty sure I’m not related to a Confederate general.
In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Juliet asks, “What’s in a name?” As this national debate continues, that’s a complex question to answer.
I reflect on my maternal great-grandfather, born during the Civil War in South Carolina while Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman occupied Southern positions using “scorched earth” tactics. Sherman agreed to spare his mother’s property in exchange for two things: Opening her homeplace as a hospital for Union soldiers, and naming her infant after him.
Years passed before anyone dared to utter William S. Belk’s middle name.
Meanwhile, we must listen to those who are concerned that changing names of schools or relocating statues in museums might be a token gesture — a Band-Aid on much deeper wounds. America’s commitment to fair treatment of, and equal justice for, each individual must be paramount while moving forward.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.