Col. E. Brooke Lee could be dethroned as the namesake of a Silver Spring middle school.
Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro is urging the county school system to rename Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School, opened in 1966 and named after the prominent Maryland politician and founder of the county Planning Department.
Lee is credited with creating the first land use and zoning system for the county, but historians say he purposely attached racially restrictive policies prohibiting African-Americans from buying or renting homes in subdivisions, according to county reports. Black people could only live in the suburbs if they were domestic servants, and the policies blanketed the Silver Spring area, forcing minorities to live elsewhere. The ramifications are still being felt today, Navarro said.
“When you’re talking about inequities with different housing types and disparities in certain areas, it all traces back to some of his policy decisions and laws established,” Navarro said. “It’s a great opportunity for us as a county to stand up for the values we really represent.”
The school’s website provides a brief history of Lee’s life, but doesn’t mention his perceived downfalls, which Navarro called “unacceptable,” and Matt Logan, executive director of Montgomery History, concurred.
Logan said when the county historical society has worked with Lee Middle School students, there “seems to be a disconnect between the person whose name is on the outside of the school and the young people getting an education there.”
“He was instrumental in the creation of the sanitary sewer commission and (the planning department), and these things were critical to the development of the county and, in many respects, were very positive contributions,” Logan said.
“Unfortunately, it seems he was an unrepentant segregationist up until the bitter end and made some comments … that I’m sure were quite eye opening at that time and would be absolutely astounding in 2019.”
Lee died in 1984 and, Bruce Lee, a descendant still in the area said the family understands and supports the name change. Bruce Lee is president and CEO of a real estate development company in Silver Spring.
“I fully understand, respect and support the sentiment for changing the name of the school to a new name that is appropriate for today and not reflective of wrong and inappropriate zoning policies from generations ago,” Bruce Lee said in a Thursday statement. “Colonel Lee did leave a large and favorable legacy in Montgomery County in many ways, but restrictive zoning was not one of them. The Lees of today and our businesses are made up of very diverse and dedicated individuals and we are very proud of that diversity.”
Lee Middle School is a minority-majority school with less than 5 percent of students identifying as white, according to school system data. Sixty percent of students are Hispanic and 25.8 percent are black. More than 80 percent of students are on a free- or reduced-priced meal program.
Countywide, more than 56 percent of residents are people of color, compared to 28 percent in 1990, according to a report released last month by the county Planning Department.
At-large school board member Jeanette Dixon first recommended changing the school’s name when she was elected to the board in 2016, but conversations quickly fizzled, she said.
“I absolutely believe the board should take this up and discuss with the community … I don’t think it’s appropriate for that school to be named for someone who wasn’t supportive of people of color,” Dixon said. “I would really like the school named after someone who can inspire students and staff.”
Dixon said one possibility is Josiah Henson, a former Montgomery County slave who fled to Canada with his wife in the early 1800s on the Underground Railroad, according to county history. After his escape, he helped establish the Dawn Settlement, a community for refugees from slavery, and published his autobiography. His autobiography later became a “key source” for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a widely known abolitionist novel.
The school board has a policy addressing the naming of school facilities that says “it is preferred” school facilities be named after “deceased distinguished persons who have made an outstanding contribution to the community, county, state or nation.” The board is advised to give strongest consideration to names of women and minorities.
If the school board pursues a renaming of Lee Middle School, it will have to come up with up to four name options and Superintendent Jack Smith will establish a committee of representatives from the community who will list the options in order of preference, according to the policy. The committee can provide up to two additional naming options.
The consideration for the Lee Middle School renaming aligns with an ongoing extensive renovation and addition project set to be completed in 2021.
The $57.9 million project will ease capacity concerns at the school and addresses other issues such as buckling floors, broken tiles, mold and lack of basic capital functions like sprinkler systems.
Lee Middle School is expected to exceed its maximum capacity by nearly 250 students by 2024, and Navarro said the completion of the renovation and expansion project is prime time for a new name.
“Continuing to name that school after Mr. Lee would be simply wrong,” Navarro wrote in a letter to school leaders. “I am asking you as a matter of justice and equity to use your existing processes to bestow E. Brooke Lee Middle School with a name that does not daily remind the children of that school of Mr. Lee’s horrid past.”
This story has been updated to include a statement from a descendent of Col. E. Brooke Lee who previously could not be reached for comment.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com