Tense night as Montgomery board renames Lee, Jeff Davis high schools

Jemma Stephenson
Montgomery Advertiser

Any visitor to Montgomery in the past several decades would have found a town with three high schools named for Confederate-era figures. Any visitor to Montgomery in the past two-and-a-half years might have found a school board arguing about those names.

Thursday night, two of those schools got new names. The third, Sidney Lanier High School, is closing as part of Montgomery Public Schools’ capital plan.

At the school board meeting — displaced from its usual Tuesday night slot by an election that will replace two board members before the next — new Superintendent Dr. Melvin J. Brown recommended that Robert E. Lee High School be renamed for Montgomery-born Percy L. Julian, and that Jefferson Davis High School be renamed JAG for Frank M. Johnson, Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Robert Graetz.

Lee and Jeff Davis were first named for the Confederate leaders in the years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Lee opened in 1955, just a few months before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It would be nine years before Black students could attend the school.

In November 1965 — eight months after Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery marches — a three-person committee suggested that the newest high school be named, “in memory of Jefferson Davis, the first and last president of the Confederate States of America.”

Now the schools, which have predominately Black student bodies, will bear the names of a brilliant chemist who pioneered processes to develop medicinal steroids (Julian), an Alabama judge (Johnson) whose rulings delivered some of the biggest blows to segregation, a civil rights icon (Abernathy) who co-founded the Montgomery Improvement Association, and a white minister (Graetz) who led a Black congregation and participated in some of the biggest events of the movement.

The names came from a renaming committee. Last winter, the committee presented a short list of names to the school board and sent a longer list of recommended names to the board in the following days. Brown's selection of names were all on that longer list.

Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, center, speaks with attorney Fred D. Gray, left, and the Rev. Robert S. Graetz, right of Abernathy, about the bus boycott settlement in Montgomery, Ala., on Feb. 21, 1956.  (AP Photo)

Brown started his role over the summer, almost two years after the board of education voted to rename the schools as national protests raged after a white Minneapolis officer killed a Black man, George Floyd, by kneeling on his neck.

It hasn't been a smooth road. Delays plagued the renaming committee, which lost student members to graduation and seemed to stall as a new superintendent was chosen. Alums clashed over the decision to rename the buildings. Even school board members argued — right up until the moment the schools had new names.

District 1 Board Member Lesa Keith, the longest-serving member of the board and recently re-elected, was the only member to not vote for the renaming in June 2020. Thursday, she re-iterated her rationale: "I made the comment that you really can't change history. History is a reminder of where we don't ever want to go back."

Keith had made oversized playing cards with various pictures on them, including of the Last Supper, Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr. and a pressure pot.

Keith said that at the time, she agreed to disagree, but then they created a committee around renaming the schools. She said this issue was the only one she disagreed with, calling the other women on the board her "sisters."

Keith told the crowd Thursday night that Brown had called her about two months ago to tell her that the schools would be renamed "Freedom" and "Liberty." She told people around town about those names, and said she didn't hear a single complaint about them. "And, we're going to be done with it," she said.

Now, she said, the new names made her wonder how much power the school board actually had. While she spoke, her hands shook. She stopped to take a sip of water and clarified that she wasn't nervous and was just getting started.

When Keith held up her King card, she quoted pieces of King's speech that hoped for Black and white children to someday play together. She said that changing the names would divide Montgomery and wondered if "we" really knew our history and were really trying to unify Montgomery.

"Last one: 'Let freedom ring'," Keith said, quoting King. "Isn't it ironic? That Freedom was one of the names that we came up with?"

Do we know our history?

The school formerly known as Lee used to have a statue of the man out front. The statue was given to the city of Montgomery in 1908 and relocated to the school in 1960, where it remained until Jun. 1, 2020. 

Protestors yanked the statue down, destroying it to the point that Montgomery was not required to replace it. According to MPS, the Sons of the Confederacy took possession of the statue.

The Alabama chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans did not return a response to a request for an interview.

Ironically, Robert E. Lee, Confederate general and former namesake of a school, never stepped foot in Alabama, much less Montgomery.

His name was put on the "white" school in the 1950s more than 85 years after his death and a year after segregation was legally ended.

MPS board member Arica Watkins-Smith speaks during a press conference at the Montgomery County Commission Chambers in Montgomery, Ala., on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020.

District 7 Board Member Arica Watkins-Smith, who had done research on proposed names with District 3 Board Member Brenda DeRamus Coleman, told Keith and others that those names had come from the Daughters of the Confederacy.

"I learned that the Daughters of the Confederacy actually brought those names not out of love like Dr. King but out of spite," she said.

Watkins-Smith said that Marie Bankhead Owen, a Daughter of the Confederacy who helped establish the state archives, spearheaded the naming of the schools for Confederates. She filled the archive with "vitriol."

Coleman said that the research that the two of them have done allowed them to learn more about their community.

"We learned things about people in our own community that we didn't even know," Coleman said. "History that has been hidden."

At the same board meeting, discussions of renaming Lee High School for Dr. John Winston and former Lee principal Clinton Carter were rejected. Winston provided aid and health care to those injured on the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965, according to an obituary published in the Montgomery Advertiser. He co-founded the Pryor-Winston Medical Center, which provided healthcare to West Montgomery.

'This person grew up just like you'

Coleman also emphasized that that history was unknown to her, despite her attending Black schools her whole life. But, she did know the people her schools were named after.

"When you tell a child that this person grew up just like you: You can be what you want to be," she said.

The school known as Lee will now be known for Percy Julian.

Julian was born in Montgomery and went on to attend DePauw University. He was the first to synthesize the drug physostigmine, which made it readily available to treat glaucoma, according to the American Chemical Society.

Both Brown and Coleman stressed that he was deemed not worthy of higher education because he was Black. Then, he went on to save lives.

The school that was known as Jefferson Davis will now be known as "J.A.G.," for Johnson, Abernathy and Graetz.

Johnson’s rulings are credited with ending segregation in Alabama schools and on Montgomery buses, eliminating the state poll tax, allowing Black people to serve on juries and authorizing the Selma-to-Montgomery March, Brown explained at the meeting.

Frank M. Johnson in the Federal Courthouse in Montgomery, Ala. during the late 1980’s.

Abernathy was a close associate of King and a civil rights leader in his own right. Brown called him "a champion for equity and equality throughout his life.”

Graetz, a white clergyman in Montgomery who led a Black congregation, was a frequent target of harassment and even bombings at his home because of his affiliation with Black civil rights leaders and participation in the bus boycott.

"Again, I don't want to get into a debate, but to downplay the importance of people like a Winston or a Julian or an Abernathy or Reverend Graetz and Judge Franklin Johnson, I think is insulting to their histories and their families," said Coleman.

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that the school formerly known as Robert E. Lee High School was named in 1955, with the school's opening.

Jemma Stephenson is the children and education reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. She can be reached at jstephenson@gannett.com or 334-261-1569.