ROCKVILLE – Council President Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) released a letter on Feb. 5, requesting a name change for Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School in Silver Spring, citing his troubling and racist past during his time of owning real estate in the county.
During her press availability on Feb. 11, Navarro explained that the request was part of the county’s ongoing effort to work with the Racial Equity Institute in passing a new law that addresses racial disparity problems along different sectors in the fall.
According to Navarro, parents within the middle school’s community reached out with their concerns about Lee’s name.
“This was the impetus of folks reaching out to me saying, ‘It is great that you guys are embarking on this racial inequity work this year, but how about you take a look at some of the public facilities like schools and what message it sends those children as they walk in that this is who they are basically honoring and celebrating,’” Navarro said.
Her letter cites a 2017 Washington Post editorial story by former Montgomery Historic Preservation Commission Chairman David Rotenstein that explains Lee, who had earned much of his wealth from his real estate companies, created subdivisions that limited African Americans the opportunity to live in suburban neighborhoods in the county.
“Less well known is the fact that Lee attached racial restrictive covenants to all his suburban properties,” Rotenstein said. “These prohibited African Americans from buying or renting homes in the subdivisions. They could live in these new suburbs only if they were domestic servants.”
The effects of Lee’s policies were already in effect prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling banning the practice in 1948. Both Navarro’s letter and the Washington Post editorial go on to say that Lee would fight against county leaders in local newspapers who tried to pass civil rights measures, calling them “Anti-White laws” and saying that “desegregation is not the answer.”
“Here in Montgomery County, we have so many conversations about land use decisions and about disparities in different parts of the county that when you start looking at the history, you realize there was a stage set a long time ago that was set to lead us to this point of having these disparities,” said Navarro. “And this particular person was responsible for a lot of those convenants that did not allow African Americans to live in these neighborhoods.”
Navarro said that she planned to speak to the Lee family, who still have a prominent place in the county, at a lunch on Feb. 12. Lee’s grandson, Bruce H. Lee, President and CEO of Lee Development Group, said that he supports renaming the school, calling the restrictive zoning policies of the past “wrong and inappropriate.”
Currently, the school is open but undergoing renovations – with the completion of the project set for September 2021. Before opening the newly, refurbished building, Narravo said parents told her it would be best to rename the school after someone who has worked on inclusion justice and a person who reflects the changing demographics of its students.
The school’s 2017-18 enrollment numbers show that 93.8 percent of its population is Asian, African Americans and Hispanic/Latino and less than 5 percent is white.
“With the approaching re-opening of a brand-new facility, the board has a unique and exciting opportunity to rename E. Brooke Lee Middle School after a transformational individual that all our students can be proud of,” Navarro said. “Continuing to name that school after Mr. Lee would be simply wrong.”
The news of Navarro’s letter slowly traveled to the school community. A webpage on the school website with a dedication to Lee is still up. The page referenced him as being called “Mr. Democrat” and the “Father of Modern Silver Spring.” According to the webpage, Lee fought in World War I, worked in developing the county and was key in the creation of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Parents and students who asked about the request did not know the background behind the school’s name. Sixth grader Joelle Royster said that teachers have not informed her or her classmates of Lee, but if the background information is true, it would be best to change the name.
“I would not want my school to be named after a racist,” said Royster.
“Let’s not have bigots’ names on our buildings,” Peter Artega, 33, said. “If in fact this individual, coming from that era, did those things and is a racist, I would say get his name off the place.”
Oscar Alvarez, 57, said his eighth-grade daughter told him that Navarro’s letter has garnered attention around the school. However, Alvarez said the school has other problems that need to be addressed first, citing the arrest of a former security guard for sexually assaulting a 14-year old girl in 2017.
“I want to make sure my child is safe first, and problems in the school need to be addressed by the county,” Alvarez said. “Changing a name will not fix anything. We have racists in the White House right now making a mess right now, and we have leaders not doing a thing about it… There are problems like sexual assaults and fights every day in this school that need to be addressed.”
School officials have not publicly responded to the letter, and the name-change request was not discussed during the Feb. 12 Board of Education meeting. Montgomery County Public Schools Spokesperson Gboyinde Onijala said there is no formal statement at this time but that the board will be issuing a response in the upcoming days.
The board ultimately has the final say if the middle school will undergo a name change.