Tyler’s Choice

She pulled up a chair and the stories and laughter began. She’s beautiful and bubbly, a good mom and wife and friend with a gift for spinning a tale. She had a “hilarious” one to share, she said.

A couple of men with dark skin were touring the home for sale next door, she began. Maybe they were Indian. Maybe Middle-Eastern. Either way, probably Muslim, she figured.

So she told her children to go outside and be loud, to sing songs about Jesus they’d learned in Sunday School. “Jesus Loves Me or something,” she laughed. She didn’t want “them” living next door to her.

When the story ended I didn’t know what to do.

This isn’t even my town anymore. I left this place two decades ago.

Should I say something? I don’t want to hurt anybody, cause problems, make this awkward…

That was last month. But that’s just my most recent experience with racism and silence in Tyler, Texas.

Two decades ago, my father-in-law pastored a church in Tyler. Once, the Klan was holding a rally on the square and the local paper asked him for a comment. When it was printed the death threats began. His home was broken into and vandalized.

A year before that, a minority family had started attending our church. At a church business meeting a woman – a Sunday school teacher – stood and announced, “I go to church to be with people like me!” Many applauded. None protested.

During the Civil Rights Movement, the high school on the south side of town – the predominantly white side of town – was named after confederate general Robert E. Lee. Their mascot was the Rebel. At every football game a cannon was fired by students in civil war-esque uniforms and the players entered the field by running under the world’s second largest confederate flag.

Robert E Lee high school Rebels cannoneers 1965
Robert E. Lee high school “cannoneers” in 1965

In 1972, four black football players ran around the flag instead. This ignited controversy in Tyler, but eventually resulted in changing the school’s mascot to a Red Raider. The cannon was nixed in 1986.

Today, Robert E. Lee high school’s student population is majority hispanic and black. As the minority population has grown on the south side of Tyler, white families have slowly and steadily removed their children from public schools and placed them in mostly-white Christian private schools.

This coming Monday, at a school board meeting, one group will argue that, given the history of racial division in Tyler, Robert E. Lee high school should be renamed. The school is undergoing major renovations anyway – it’s a convenient time to give the new school a new name, they’ll say. The other group will argue against the change.

The debate is already happening in my Facebook feed. Black friends are relieved, saying it’s about time. White friends are circulating a petition to block the change.

Their reasoning? Extremely varied.

We should preserve history, not erase it. We shouldn’t “coddle” “snowflakes” who get their feelings hurt too easily. The Civil War was about state rights and not race anyway. It’s just the name of a school. It won’t end racism. There are bigger problems out there…

But, most commonly, friends are expressing a genuine belief that Robert E. Lee was a good man who wasn’t a racist. At the same time they are expressing a genuine belief that they are good people and not racists.

Lee was a good man. Tyler is a good city that has made tremendous progress toward tolerance and diversity. Tyler is full of so many good people doing so many good things. But good people and good cities aren’t perfect. It’s time to admit that. And take the next step toward being better.

To change the name of the school would be a kind of admission that there was something wrong about Robert E. Lee fighting for the confederacy.

To change the name of the school would be an admission that there is more progress to be made in Tyler.

To change the name of the school would be an admission that the citizens of Tyler, while good people, have also been complicit at times in racism…by naming the school, waving that flag, threatening a pastor, segregating worshipers and students, not welcoming neighbors who might be Indian or Middle-Eastern (and probably Muslim).

Or complicit for not speaking up when others did these things.

Or complicit for sitting silently as a friend tells a “hilarious” story.

The truth hurts. The truth about racism, about my hometown, and about me. But it’s time we tell the truth. And make this good city a little bit better.

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