Equity & Diversity

Black Student’s Push to Rid Her School of Confederate Ties Draws Backlash

By Tiara Beatty — August 14, 2015 4 min read
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Since the mass shootings in an historically black church in Charleston, S.C., senior Kayla Wilson has been pushing a campaign—and getting strong backlash—to change the name of her San Antonio, Texas, high school.

Kayla’s high school, named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was opened in 1958. Kayla, who is African American, is a student in the school’s special arts magnet.

So what is it like to be a black student at the center of such a heated debate? And what is motivating Kayla?

Since her freshman year at Lee, Kayla said she has been bothered by a mosaic tile artwork of the Confederate flag on campus. (A district spokeswoman said last week that the mosaic has since been removed due to prior construction.)

“Growing up black, you’re always taught that the Confederate flag means you’re not welcome,” she said.

Kayla’s effort to rid her school of all ties to the Confederacy is one among scores of initiatives launched by student activists and others since the Charleston shootings in June.

Until 1991, the Confederate flag appeared in various ways at Lee High School, including on athletic uniforms, a spokeswoman for the North East Independent School District told local media outlets. But Kayla said that some students and adults still wave the flag at school pep rallies and athletic events.

According to the North East Independent School District’s 2014-15 profile, which Lee High School is part of, the school system’s enrollment is predominantly Hispanic. Fifty-eight percent of students are Hispanic, 28 percent are white, and 7 percent are African American. Lee High School’s student body is 80 percent Hispanic, 13 percent white, and 4 percent African American, according to state education data.

The Charleston shooting, which killed nine black churchgoers including the pastor, sparked a wave of national debate over removing Confederate symbols and was the catalyst for Kayla to start her own petition to remove the mosaic Confederate flag from Lee. Then, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro weighed in on social media suggesting NEISD should go even farther and change the school’s name. That motivated Kayla to change her petition’s goal to change the name.

Camille Abrams, Kayla’s mother, at first wanted her daughter to “just ignore it and focus on what she was going to school for.” She worried about the response her daughter would receive and she “didn’t want anyone pinpointing her.”

Both Kayla and her petition have received a lot of attention from news media and on social media, some of it racist. Kayla has received messages from classmates and alumni telling her she is too sensitive and should leave the school. She says she likes her school and the arts program she’s in, but finds the name and use of Confederate symbols offensive. Proponents of keeping the name started a petition to counter Kayla’s.

Earlier this week, Kayla took her petition—which has since reached 10,000 signatures—and presented it to the local school board. She spoke at the NEISD board meeting during its public comment period, which lasted for three hours to accommodate the numerous speakers who spoke for and against the name change.

“Former Mayor Castro must have slept through history classes at Jefferson High School. He didn’t learn that Robert E. Lee is one of the few people universally respected by historians for a stellar record in the military and education,” Lee alumni Larry Carlson said during public comment. “If we choose to look for controversy, it’s there for every school name in our district.”

Teachers also weighed in to speak out against a district-imposed gag order that has kept them from commenting on the issue. Board members did not respond directly to any of the comments and none have moved to place the matter on an official meeting agenda for discussion or action. Last week, a spokeswoman for the district said that there were no plans to change the school’s name.

Kayla said some students have privately reached out to her letting her know they agreed with her viewpoint but did not want to state so publicly.

“It’s kind of a shame that people are too afraid to get backlash from other students,” Wilson said. Abrams said she stopped letting her daughter view comments due to the magnitude of negativity. Kayla has received threats, been called ignorant, and been told to go back to Africa.

In spite of all the backlash, Kayla said she’s not concerned about returning to school. “I’m not really that worried about it because some of the teachers at Lee actually supported me,” Kayla said.

Kayla said she has no plans of giving up.

“I’ll try to attend as many board meeting as I can to get my point across. I’m serious about this,” she added. “I feel like because I’m a student they don’t take me as seriously, but I have over 9,000 people who agree too.”

Kayla plans to finish her senior year at Lee and hopes to study communications at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington.


A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.