The Tyler ISD School Board voted unanimously to change the names of its two high schools, currently named for Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and John Tyler.
The board held a special meeting Thursday night. Residents spoke at the lectern both for and against the name change. Some also protested outside.
Over two hours into the meeting, the board made its unanimous decision, voting 7 to 0 to change the names.
The East Texas city of Tyler is named for John Tyler, a former president who pushed for the annexation of Texas. He also owned slaves. At the end of his life, Tyler joined the Confederate legislature.
About a century later, as a response to the civil rights movement, the town renamed its high schools for John Tyler and Lee, a Confederate general.
Corneilius Shackelford Sr. is a 2006 graduate of John Tyler High. He played football, baseball and ran track for the school the rest of the state knows as “Tyler John Tyler.”
Although he didn’t think much about his school’s name when he was a student, now he believes it needs to change.
“The way that the schools came up and the way that they were named, it really comes off as [a] response [to] civil rights being passed and Black people having equal rights to whites,” he said.
Shackelford called that “like a spit in the face” for Black people like his family.
Over the years, there have been efforts to change the schools’ names. The last failed in 2018.
Mission Bonner, a Black parent, Tyler resident and civil rights activist, said the push to change the names started again after police killed George Floyd.
“We protested. It was just a few in numbers starting out, but gradually it increased,” Bonner said. “We sent emails to the school board in regards to the name change daily. I mean all day, every day.”
Andy Bergfeld, a board member who’s white, said in 2018 he thought the idea was more tied to a progressive movement he didn’t agree with, rather than coming from the community.
At Thursday’s meeting, he said his stance on the names had changed.
“There is a general consensus among the mature leaders of this community, both white and Black, that are not part of the progressive movement, that believe having our only two high schools prominently linked to the Confederacy and its ties to slavery needs to come to an end,” he said.
The Tyler ISD board will now consider how to exactly go about finding a new name and getting community suggestions. The current draft policy wouldn’t allow naming a school after another person, to avoid future controversy.
Mission Bonner can agree with that.
“Call it Freedom High School or something,” she said. “Anything that all races would appreciate, and show some type of dignity.”
Whatever the choices are, board president Wade Washmon said he wants to move quickly on finding new high school names.