Robert E. Lee Elementary School

The Confederate memorialization movement also included the naming or renaming of public structures such as roads or schools. Robert E. Lee Elementary, although not given its current name until 1943, stood as a tribute to one of the most beloved members of the South. The school itself stood for over 100 years and provided Tampa with a unique educational experience starting in the early 1990s.

There are many areas throughout the United States that bear the names of Confederate generals and leaders of the Civil War. Used as a tribute to the memorialization of the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause,” these symbols litter the American landscape, particularly in the southern states. The elementary now known as Lee Elementary Magnetic School was originally named the Michigan Avenue Grammar School simply because it was located on Michigan Avenue. When Michigan Avenue was changed to Columbus Avenue, the city of Tampa decided to rename the school. Arguably the most enduring piece of Southern memory of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee remains a symbol of Southern heritage across the country. It is unsurprising that the school board decided to rename the school after him in 1943.

The school was originally built in 1906 by volunteers in the surrounding neighborhoods. The school’s original roof was made of slate, and coal fueled the furnace during the winter months. The top of the school featured a copper dome. The building’s long history stands as testament to the time in which it was built. In 1906, the United States flag had only 45 stars, there were 8,000 automobiles across the nation, there were 144 miles of paved roads, and the speed limit was a mere 10 miles per hour.

Lee became the first elementary magnet school in 1993, specializing in technology. The term “magnet” refers to a school curriculum that caters to a specific type of student. Ideally, these specialization practices aim to pull white students into poor, mostly African American neighborhoods. In this way, the schools attempt to make it more common for white students to come to the inner city so African American students do not have to take long rides out to the suburbs with great frequency. The entire student body then attends classes centered on the “theme” of the program at a specific school – every class and lesson reflects the overall theme. In the case of Lee Elementary, it was computers and technology. World Studies was added as a part of the school’s specialization in 2008.

Beginning in 2015, Lee Elementary became embroiled in a nationwide controversy over the prevalence of Confederate themes and memory (the mascot of Lee Elementary is that of Lee’s horse, Traveller), particularly after the racially motivated massacre at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. As with other Confederate symbols, such as the Confederate statue once located at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in downtown Tampa, the debate was highly contested between the two sides. Different names were proposed including Barack Obama Elementary and Woodson Elementary, named after Carter G. Woodson, the late nineteenth-century historian who lobbied for the establishment of Black History Month. In 2017, school board members argued that the costly name-changing process would take longer than expected due to an existing policy. The policy states that the name of the school is “permanent,” thus there must be a period of 18 months dedicated to “community involvement, deliberation, discussion, and debate.” In September 2017, the debate surrounding the name change became increasingly complicated after Hurricane Irma.

Although Lee Elementary escaped damage from the hurricane itself, the aftereffects of the hurricane devastated the building as a fire broke out on September 12, around 6:45 p.m. Overall, not much is known about the origin of the fire. Tampa Fire Rescue responded to a call from concerned neighbors who reported flames coming from the northwest corner of the school. It is believed that the fire started when the surrounding neighborhood of Tampa Heights regained power after Hurricane Irma. Three fire engines responded to the call, and they fought the fire defensively as there was no one in the building at the time, and the roof appeared to be on the verge of collapse. The hardwood floors of the three-storied school seemed to exacerbate the fire. Due to the nature of the controversy surrounding the name of the school, the fire marshal’s office was instructed to conduct an investigation, but there was no indication of foul play. As such, the long-standing symbol of education for the Tampa Heights neighborhood was reduced to rubble, and it is yet to be seen if the school will be rebuilt.