by Tim Gilmore, 11/24/2022
After the summer of 2020, when a white police officer named Derek Chauvin murdered an unarmed black man named George Floyd in Minneapolis, the latest in a series of similar deaths in the national news, students started asking more questions. Across the South, young people of every racial background were demanding Confederate monuments come down and asking why the institutions that surrounded and enmeshed them celebrated the ugly history of white supremacism.
Students at Robert E. Lee sought answers too. They started to seek out the history. They took up the slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” because so much of what they saw happening around them indicated otherwise. They couldn’t have predicted the great offense many older white people took to young multiracial people saying their lives mattered, reading the Confederates’ own speeches about slavery being the “cornerstone” on the Confederacy and demanding a full application of the Golden Rule – not only that they treat others as they’d like to be treated, but that others do the same.
The Duval County School Board, which had the power to change offensive school names, decided instead to hold a series of public discussions about whether or not to change them. The only student at the first meeting at Lee High School was Mykyla Hooper, winner of the 2021 Miss Lee pageant. Most of the other speakers were Lee alumni opposed to renaming the school.
In February, nationally designated “Black History Month,” students across the school district took offense to Duval County Public Schools’ strange silence on the crucial cultural moment in which social justice initiatives shook the nation’s collective conscience. Instead of acknowledging Black Lives Matter, perhaps the greatest Civil Rights movement since the 1960s, DCPS identified February as “You Matter Month.”
Lee High School Senior Class President Deyona Burton saw parallels between “You Matter Month” and disingenuous slogans used by politicians on the right who opposed Black Lives Matter. “During Black History Month,” she wrote in a petition to the school board, “a time of amplifying black voices, having a county-wide campaign with the word choice and generalization like this one, demeans black students and is synonymous to saying, ‘All Lives Matter.’”
Burton pointed to “All Lives Matter” as a slogan that perfectly demonstrated the “strawman fallacy,” the insidious pretense of pretending to refute someone else’s argument, when really you’ve created a false version of their argument and attacked your own disingenuous version instead.
Lee students protested “You Matter Month” by walking out of the school with a Black Lives Matter flag that belonged to English teacher Amy Donofrio. Principal Timothy Feagins joined the students seemingly in solidarity. Feagins would soon backpedal and Donofrio would find herself in national headlines as a scapegoat for what far-right politicians both feared and pretended they believed was happening in classrooms everywhere.
In 2013, several young black students formed a group called EVAC in Donofrio’s Leadership class. EVAC students were chosen for Harvard’s Youth Advisory Board in two separate years, met President Obama and Civil Rights hero John Lewis, and were featured on the front page of The New York Times.
“For four years they channeled personal tragedies,” wrote Beth Reese Cravey for The Florida Times-Union when the core group graduated in 2018, “such as losing siblings to murder, having family members incarcerated and witnessing shootings, into positive change. They called themselves EVAC because of their collective efforts to escape hopeless situations.”
As the name change meetings continued, Donofrio started live-streaming them and more Lee students showed up. School administrators told Hooper she could lose her “Miss Lee” crown. Teen Vogue Magazine quoted Hooper: “One person said, ‘It wasn’t me who owned slaves, it was my grandfather. It’s time for you all to move on.’ I’ve heard from other people at the name-change meetings, ‘Forget and forgive.’ My whole thing is, if we are forgetting and forgiving, why can’t you guys forget first? Why can’t we just throw the name out and get one we can all agree to and move forward?”
One momentous Tuesday, a student named Chris St. Louis asked Donofrio, his English teacher, if he could hang out after school in her classroom to write down what he wanted to say at that night’s meeting. Like so many teachers, Donofrio arrived at school well before first period and stayed hours after students left for the day. She’d developed a reputation for being a white teacher who cared about elevating black student voices.
“Chris was a smart student,” Amy says, who “felt motivated to work for four hours on what he might say and then stand in front of an auditorium full of lots of hateful people to speak his truth and then even talk to TV news.” She’d heard older adults complain about student apathy and ignorance, but she’d witnessed the opposite on a mass scale and saw older adults try viciously to shut down that student awakening.
Later that night, school officials removed Donofrio’s Black Lives Matters flag from her classroom. A National Public Radio story would soon ask, “Can a Teacher Fly a Black Lives Matter Flag at School? A Florida Court Will Consider.” The next day a student named Kalynn Edwards hung BLM posters throughout the school and administrators followed behind her and took them down. At the end of the day, officials removed Amy Donofrio herself from school premises.
That night, Edwards gave an impassioned speech, a Black Lives Matter flag wrapped around her shoulders. Older white men had filled the meetings with comments about how slaves were supposed to obey their masters and Lee alumnus Joey Stevens said Jesus supported slavery. Addressing that audience, Edwards said, “The fact that you have to state, when you come up here, that you are not a racist, that you have to continually remind yourself! You’re not reminding me. I don’t have to say, ‘Oh I’m black.’ It’s obvious.”
Now Robert E. Lee’s students and English teacher Amy Donofrio found themselves in the sites of a popular governor, Ron DeSantis, who’d joined a national far-right coalition of politicians headed by Donald Trump that called any historical teaching of systemic racism “Critical Race Theory,” of which few teachers had ever heard. No matter: successful politicians are good at creating, like blackface, bogeymen.
Students shared stories of teachers using “the n-word” and Donofrio received death threats. Participants in online right-wing forums posted Donofrio’s home address and messages like, “I hope she lives next to a fire station.” Others mailed threatening letters to her at home.
Duval County Public Schools held public debate for 11 months before putting to a vote the decision to change the name of Robert E. Lee and other schools named for Confederate leaders, for President Andrew Jackson, who fomented genocide against indigenous people and signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and for French colonizer Jean Ribault. The school board changed the Confederate names and let the others stand.
In 2022, Florida politicians, led by DeSantis, moved to allow parents to sue teachers who taught about racism and racial inequality; removed math books that showed cartoon children of color; passed legislation banning “classroom instruction” on “gender identity and sexual orientation” in Kindergarten through third grade, though no such instruction existed, with the governor’s office labeling teachers “groomers,” or pedophiles;
created lists of books to be banned in schools; issued political questionnaires to educators and college students asking that they define themselves for the government as “conservative” or “liberal.” Whereas Lee students held signs saying, “Black History Matters,” the governor, in his landslide reelection victory speech in November 2022, said Florida was where the awareness and understanding of racial prejudice and discrimination — subsumed in his favorite strawman word, “Woke” — “comes to die!”
In response to a year of racial abuse, Lee students demonstrated leadership, historical knowledge and understanding, and courageous public speaking skills before antagonistic audiences. Their education and their strength offended and frightened Confederate sympathizers who preferred lionizing white supremacists, historical inaccuracy and willful ignorance. After all, the root of the word “ignorance” is the verb “ignore.” By graduation time, Robert E. Lee became Riverside High School, bearing the name of one of the city’s most distinctive neighborhoods. Its football team remains the Generals.
What would my mother, who graduated in 1953, have thought of the name-change campaign? Since she died in 1986, when I was 12, from ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, I can’t ask her. I can’t assume that the way she thought in 1951, or 1981, wouldn’t have changed by 2021. Each of her three Lee yearbooks shows students wearing blackface on stage. She often told me she was sad so few Japanese were Christians — she’d lived in Japan when her first husband was stationed on a Navy base there — and that Lincoln had “messed up the South.”
In the early ’70s, she’d asked Bob Gray, the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, for permission to marry the man who’d become my father. Both my parents had previously divorced abusive alcoholics and divorce, for Baptists in the South, was a sin against the Lord. How would she feel about my 2016 book, Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity, about how the church and its affiliated school, Trinity Christian Academy, covered up Gray’s sexual abuse of children for half a century? She’d wanted me to become a preacher. It’s because of her I first thought of myself as a writer. She was the most influential person in my life. Would her thinking have evolved with mine? Would she have turned against me?
Not only is the fact that right-wing politicians now want the government to silence educators from showing that racism is systemic an illustration of how racism is systemic; so is the ubiquity of white racism in the years when Mom was growing up. The fact that white people in the South at that time almost universally used “the n-word,” but would later say it wasn’t racist to do so, indicates the systemic and insidious nature of racism. Racism is as systemic as a plague. While the primary victims of racism have darker skin, the perpetrators of racism are its lesser victims.
That’s not an excuse. Everyone is responsible for the way they think. Each of us is responsible for our own enlightenment (and our ignorance). My mother would be 87 years old if she were alive today. I wish I could peruse her old yearbooks with her, that she’d find the old racism vile, that I could put my hand on her shoulder, that I could touch her hair, that she’d tell me stories, all those moments that died with her, that I could absorb all the memories she’d recall and share with me. Oh how dearly, how dearly I wish these things!