"TRUDE LAMB WAITS in the hallway with the other speakers and, when she hears her name, enters the room where a school board meeting in Tyler, Texas, is being held. It's a sultry evening in late June. In the center of the room, a wooden lectern faces the seven board members of Tyler Independent School District.
Trude is 16 years old, the 11th speaker in a procession of 40, and those who came before her had approached the lectern with small speeches in hand. They clutched pieces of paper that withered in the summer heat and contained notes about legacies and history, two words that had defined the town for decades and were being summoned once again to discuss the name of Robert E. Lee High School, which is Trude's school and the reason she is here.
She wears a black T-shirt that says "The time is now," and on the back is a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: "Justice too long delayed is justice denied." Trude's pants, which her family has never seen her wear, are red, patterned and bright. Later, her mother, Laura Owens, will say it looked like her daughter was going to battle. On her wrist, she wears beads from Ghana, to remind her of home, to remind her to be brave. The day before, she had written a letter to the school board. Now she holds it in her hands and reads.
"I am one of your true African and first-generation African American students at REL. I am from Ghana, Africa, where slavery first began. I came to America in 2014."
She had typed the letter on her phone while sitting on the couch, prompted by texts from classmates who were petitioning to change the names of Robert E. Lee High School and John Tyler High School, both in the same school district.
"I have stood in the dungeons of the slave castle and seen the three-foot urine and feces stains on the walls where my brothers and sisters were kept. I've seen the tiny hole at the top of the ceiling where they would throw food into the captured souls."
Now, reading the note, she tells the school board she is the fastest runner on the girls' cross country team, and she promises to retain that status in the upcoming season. But she will not do it wearing Lee's name on her uniform.
"I can't be playing sports, supporting and going to a school that was named after a person who was against my people right here in the United States. He owned slaves and didn't believe people like me were 100 percent human, let alone ever go to my very high school. I cannot bear and will no longer wear his name on my race jersey."
Laura had shared the letter on Facebook with Trude's permission, and it went viral, because Tyler, Texas, was now a microcosm of a country reevaluating its ties to the Confederacy. A month earlier, George Floyd had died with the knee of a white police officer against his neck, and as the summer months swelled, Confederate monuments fell across the country, especially in the South. In Tyler, people had come to a school board meeting to ask for new names for their schools, in a town where Confederate Avenue runs through a predominantly Black neighborhood and intersects with Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Harmony Street.
"I don't see a future of remembering a person who did nothing for our country and who didn't care for me or my people. He continues to bring our city down."
Trude continues to read, stumbling once or twice but always finding the next word. She hopes her voice will not tremble and if it does, that no one hears it. She cried in English class once, earlier this year. The students were supposed to introduce themselves using an adjective that starts with the first initial of their name. Trude had chosen "generous" for Gertrude, but when it was her turn, she shook until she cried. At school her favorite hallways were the virtually abandoned ones, which were always longer walks to class but provided the type of privacy she finds peace in. She ate lunch in the biology classroom.
Trude had not been planning to read her letter and agreed to do so only the night before the board meeting, after her stepdad, Nate, promised to stand behind her. She had watched a YouTube video of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, their gloved fists raised. Her mom had explained why the sprinters were shoeless, to protest poverty, and why Carlos wore beads around his neck, to protest lynchings. Now, less than 24 hours later, Trude is alone at the lectern. Because of the coronavirus, speakers are allowed in the room one at a time, and as Nate waits outside, Trude is being brave.
"This town was built on the backs of my enslaved brothers and sisters. Do it in their memory and honor the future of their [descendants] that are at REL. I hope you understand where I am coming from."
Her speech is short, just over a minute and 20 seconds. When it's over, Trude smiles shyly. Then she walks outside, joining the few hundred protestors who had gathered in the parking lot. At 7:30 p.m., it's still hot. Many protestors wear the same black shirt as Trude, with its white "The time is now" text on the front.
The slogan is a nod to history; Robert E. Lee High School was nearly renamed twice before: once, during the 1970s, when the school was forced to integrate, and in 2017, when the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, renewed conversations about the legacy of the Confederacy. The board spent a year debating the issue and in 2018 failed to bring it to a vote. Now, two years later, Black and white members of the Tyler community come bearing signs -- for and against the name change. One girl hoists her poster above her head; on it is a mirror with the words "Lee does not reflect me." A woman wearing a red shirt with an image of the high school building lifts a sign saying, "Class of '71, Class of '68! Please don't change the name!" A man holds a megaphone in hand and cries, "It is time to change it!" which protestors echo back. Their voices are loud enough for board members to hear from inside.
Trude makes her way to her mom, who had been trying unsuccessfully to find a livestream of the meeting. A school district employee had texted Laura earlier and said, "I just saw your beautiful daughter read her letter. So strong." Now Laura watches as Trude sells T-shirts and talks to strangers until Laura hardly recognizes the girl who had once cried in English class.
Later, Laura would remind herself of this moment in the parking lot and would lean on it on nights when she couldn't sleep and wondered how to protect her daughter; when she found herself at the police station filing a report because students had threatened Trude in a group chat. This is what she would remember when she asked herself if sharing Trude's letter had done more harm than good -- her daughter protesting in a parking lot with Martin Luther King Jr.'s words on her back, the calls for justice from a man's megaphone and the way they amplified just before slipping into the summer air.
TRUDE REMEMBERS IT was dark when she arrived in America. Six years ago, Laura, who is white and has three biological kids, adopted Trude and her younger brother, Felix, from an orphanage in Ghana, where they had lived after their parents died. In the first weeks of living in America, Felix would remind Trude to speak in English. Now her first language, Ewe, feels foreign, like English once did.
She was 10 years old when she left Ghana. In the orphanage, every day was the same, apart from those days when white Americans -- they were always white -- visited. Because Trude was one of the oldest children there, she helped care for the babies. When Trude talks about Ghana, she talks about the food -- like the field of cassava nearby, which was nearly always in season because of the heat. She would tug on the vegetable, feel the soil give, and know it was ready for harvest. American food sometimes still tastes too sweet, and Trude laughs when she talks about the first time she tasted icing, layered on a cake for her first birthday in America. "The icing got me," she says.
In Ghana, she was accustomed to walking everywhere. In America, she learned to love car rides. Her first glimpses of Tyler were from a car window, the landscape a blur of shadows at night.
Tyler, Texas, is a town of about 106,000, halfway between Dallas and Shreveport, Louisiana -- and if you know it at all, it's probably for the roses. Since the Great Depression, the city has built a brand around the flower; roses thrive there because of Tyler's sandy soil, and minutes away from downtown, more than 32,000 rose bushes grow in the Tyler Municipal Rose Garden. In October, when the wind blows just right, the air is sweet. Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell still keeps a home in Tyler, where he was born and raised and, during his playing days, was known as the "Tyler Rose."
In Tyler, before roses, there were peaches. And before peaches, there was cotton. Nearly everyone I talk to says the town identifies as Southern. "There's a slogan: 'Fort Worth is where the West ends -- and Dallas is where the East peters out,'" says Lee Hancock, a former Dallas Morning News reporter who has lived in Tyler since 1995. "And we're east of Dallas by about 100 miles. So Tyler is going to have the same struggles and conversations that a lot of the Deep South has struggled with. Race, slavery, the South is ground zero for that. And Tyler is a very Southern community."
BEFORE HER SPEECH at the school board meeting, before she unwittingly became the face of a movement, Trude had been at work when she'd received a text from Laura: "So many shares on your letter. It's going viral!" Laura had posted Trude's letter on Facebook earlier that day. A cashier at the local Super 1 Foods four days a week, Trude watches and knows the regulars -- who shows up on what days, who reaches for the same brand of cigarettes at checkout. Between customers, she had sent a one-word response: "Wow," which Laura knew meant Sure, Mom, what's the big deal?
But now, in the weeks after her speech to the school board, even as Trude continues to show up to work as if every day is the same, her letter and the attention it draws make it difficult to believe that is the case, that by writing this letter she hasn't stepped into a decadeslong debate playing out nationally. Robert W. Lee IV, a minister and descendant of Robert E. Lee, tweets that she has his "full and undying support." The name, he says, is a weight for him as well. Actress Michelle Monaghan calls the high schooler her #WomenCrushWednesday and urges her 88.2K Twitter followers to sign an online petition to change the name, which had grown from 4,000 signatures to more than 10,000 after Trude's letter.
Earl Campbell, the Tyler Rose, invites Trude, Felix and Laura to his house for dinner. "I thought I'd be nervous and scared," Trude says. "But I wasn't scared of him. He was chill."
Campbell wants to know about Ghana, and they talk about how they both grew up working in fields -- she, a continent away, he, on the lot in Tyler that his mother had inherited and grew roses on. Trude tells him how at the grocery store, she scans Earl Campbell's Hot Link Sausages, his face on the front of every package. Later, she takes a picture with his Heisman Trophy.
The high school football stadium and track is named Earl Campbell Field, and now he is publicly pushing for the name change of both high schools as well, Robert E. Lee and his alma mater, John Tyler. Campbell tells Trude to keep doing what she's doing. She keeps the jersey he signed in her closet.
And then, on July 12, nearly three weeks after Trude read her letter, the board announces it will hold a special meeting to discuss the name change.
THERE IS NO official tally of the number of high schools in the U.S. named after Confederate figures. But combining data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Education Week reveals that as of January, there were more than 70 such high schools -- 22 of which are named after Robert E. Lee. The school in Tyler, which is majority nonwhite, is the second largest named after the Confederate general. Most Confederate monuments, research shows, were built in the 1950s and '60s in response to the civil rights movement.
"These statues are a way for those in power to assert that they still have power," says M. Rhys Dotson, a history lecturer at the University of Texas at Tyler. "To suggest that the naming of Robert E. Lee doesn't send a message to Black folks is historically inaccurate."
The town of Tyler was named for John Tyler, the 10th U.S. president. When he died a year into the Civil War, in 1862, a Confederate flag covered the casket of the former president, who had become a member of the Confederate House of Representatives. The city has mostly rebranded itself as the rose capital of America, but Tyler's legacy lives on on the northwest side of town, at John Tyler High School. In the '80s, John Tyler was a mostly Black school, and Robert E. Lee, opened four years after Brown v. Board of Education, in 1958, was predominantly white. Tyler Independent School District remained under federal desegregation orders until 2016.
In the fall, the rivalry between the two schools embodied Friday night lights football in Texas, and back in the '80s, during the week of the game, a handful of students from Robert E. Lee would drive the 7 miles northwest to John Tyler with Confederate flags attached to their cars.
"Whenever we'd play John Tyler, once a year the flags would come out," says the Rev. Fritz Hager Jr., who is white and a current board member. "That's probably the only time I was really conscious of the strong identification with the Confederacy. I'm sure there's some people for whom it was purely an exercise in school spirit. And I'm sure there were also people who were racist."
In the '60s, the school owned what was reportedly the second-largest Confederate flag in the country. Given to the school by the grandmother of a current board member, it was 20 feet by 30 feet and was dwarfed only by the University of Mississippi's flag. During football games, 20 boys, called the "Lee Gentlemen," raced the flag out onto the field as the football team ran under it. There's a story, maybe apocryphal, that in the early '70s, four Black players ran around the flag instead. A cannon nicknamed Ole Spirit was fired at athletic events.
In 1972, the Texas Education Agency received a complaint about the school's Confederate symbols, and the school board voted 5-2 to remove the Rebel mascot, Confederate flags, the "Dixie" fight song and other symbols. The school name remained, as did its song, which begins: "Robert E. Lee, we raise our voice in praise of your name." No one in town knows where the flag went, but it still manages to show up every so often during Robert E. Lee reunions.
"I think people felt that because their experience in high school was positive, that [changing the name] was somehow an assault on their memories," Hager says. "But the other thing that made it difficult was how quickly people imposed the national argument on Tyler. You were quickly branded as either a progressive liberal who was trying to erase history or a racist who wanted to revive the Confederacy."
LAURA IS STILL awake. At 2 a.m. on a July night, she and her husband have said good night and now she lies in bed, worrying about her 16-year-old daughter, which is to say she is like many mothers, except now she reads about her daughter in the national news. She worries about comments she reads under articles with Trude in the headlines.
"Go back to Ghana and run for them. You have no right to try to change our history."
"She has the right not to want to wear the jersey ... and the school has the right not to let her participate."
"So if all names are changed, monuments removed and all is done, what will people want done next? Where does it stop?"
She reads these out loud to her husband, and he does the same. They can do this for hours. They bemoan how strangely addicting it can be. Together, Laura and Nate scroll through what has become their family's life.
"It's a very simple situation! Who cares what the name of a school was for years and years before her! It's history. ... Maybe not a comfortable part of history, but it's still history!"
"The name was chosen to send a message, it was chosen to remind blacks in Tyler, Texas that this school was not for you."
Laura and Nate respond to some. They invite strangers into their home for conversations about race and the name change, and in doing so, they hope to rebuild the type of ideological bridges this country has lost. Maybe if this person would just meet Trude ... Later they laugh at how absurd that sounds, but for the first few weeks, it's how they decompress. Eventually it will get old.
The other night Laura's oldest daughter, Rachel, a senior at Robert E. Lee, burst into their bedroom. "Mom, have you seen this?" Then, "Is Trude all right? Is she awake?" Screenshots of a group message among Robert E. Lee students were going around social media.
"We're not taking any s--- from those n-----s I'm keeping a f---ing knife next year."
"Shes black you can't blame her cause she's not as smart as our white supremacy selfs."
"I say we go back to the rebels."
"Civil War II."
Laura thought about waking Trude, who was asleep in the next bedroom. She decided it could wait until morning.
Only when the lights are off, in the last slivers of the day, does Laura feel overwhelmed by her own doubts. "It's a lot of hate to sit with," she says, "especially when a lot of it has been aimed at your daughter. You can ignore it or you can put it to the side, but after a while it has to surface." This is what Laura thinks about in the quiet of a summer night, and a few hours before morning, there is always the conclusion that she cannot protect Trude forever. "I need to find more ways to allow my white shield to not be shielding her."
Laura is teaching Trude and Rachel to drive, and when Laura criticized Trude for not making a complete stop, Trude grew frustrated. "You're so much harder on me than Rachel." Laura knew she was right. "Babe, I'm so sorry," she said. Then she explained why: Rachel, who is white, could stop in the middle of a crosswalk and likely receive only a warning. Trude, who is Black, would not. Laura parents her Black kids differently from her white kids. She doesn't apologize for this, for wanting to keep her kids alive, but the fact that she has to enrages her.
"Parenting Black kids, I can't filter stuff," she says. "If I kept this kind of ugliness from my Black children, I would be doing them a disservice as a parent because they've got to know what's out there. My Black son needs to know that he is seen as more of a threat than my white son." The Lamb kids know that when they go to a store, it's a one-to-one ratio. You don't leave Trude or Felix alone.
TRUDE SLIPS OUT the front door of her house. Outside, the street is quiet, and she walks several steps before starting to run. It's a muggy July morning, days before the school board is scheduled to discuss the future of the high schools. Because of the coronavirus, Trude mostly runs alone. Still, she's scared someone will recognize and confront her.
"When I'm running, I feel like people are like, 'Oh, there's that girl from Lee.' I don't feel safe," she says. "Since all this stuff has been going on, when I'm running, I can't stop worrying. I feel like somebody's going to see me and call the cops. It's just in my mind the whole time."
For a while she ran with the dogs, but Tippy and Barli could keep up for only so long. During track season, Trude logs 60 to 70 miles a week. She's running 6 today, staying close to her neighborhood, where she feels safest. A block away from her house, she passes the elementary school and swings left. With her earbuds in, the music -- a mix of country and R&B -- is just loud enough to offset the sound of her breathing. She doesn't think about much when she runs, and for so long, that was the appeal of the sport. Initially Trude picked up running for no other reason than she was really good at it, which is as good of a reason as any when you're 10 years old and adjusting to life in America.
Back then, she asked questions about everything, in a language she was still learning. Why do we do this? What is that? She took a ridiculous number of hot showers. She wanted to know why Laura, an ultramarathoner, went on long runs when they owned a minivan. Why would anyone want to run for fun? But when Trude was in fourth grade, the school had a fun run. When Laura picked up the kids, the PE teacher stopped her outside the car. "Do you know how fast your daughter is?" he asked. By the time Trude was in sixth grade, she was running a 5:41 mile.
It was the easiest thing she could do, and even as Trude's English got better, running stayed easy. She began running with Laura, stopping at the end of the street and waiting for her mom to catch up. Laura's siblings are marathoners and ultramarathoners, and they made jokes about looking like wounded donkeys as Trude glided by. Eventually Laura started biking while Trude ran, and every time, Trude gave the same smile. Yeah, Mom. I know I'm faster than you.
Today, with 3 miles left, she is alone on the road. It slopes downhill, and Trude lets the momentum carry her toward the bottom.
There's a video from a track meet this spring, right before the coronavirus shut down the season. In it, Trude is running the half-mile, her favorite race. Laura is yelling in the background, "You're not hurting! Pick it up!" One lap in and there's Trude, a few girls back. The 800-meter race is a marriage between speed and strategy. The first 200 meters of the second and final lap gets to nearly everyone. But that second lap, Trude actually gets faster. As a sophomore, Trude's times are fast enough for colleges to start noticing.
In news articles about her letter, people suggested in the comments that she was throwing away a potential college scholarship by protesting against the school name. But Trude doesn't know whether she wants to run in college yet. She wants to pursue something in the medical field. In her freshman biology class, she was fascinated by how the world could be reduced to a few cells, how everything is dictated by logic. She is an endless researcher, both by nature and because learning to live in America has made it a necessity.
Two miles away now. As she gets closer to home, there's a house with several Trump 2020 lawn signs. When she visited Ghana a couple of years ago, people wanted to know what America was like. Trude wasn't sure what to say.
She didn't tell them about the person who told her to "go back to where she came from" before the 2016 election. Couldn't begin to explain why her brother Felix is not allowed to play with toy guns outside, or why her family has a list taped in the car of what to do when stopped by a cop. When she lived in Ghana, she didn't know there were Black people in America. But after living in America for a few years, she struggled to tell her relatives what it meant to be Black in her new country.
She went on a bike ride with Felix a few weeks ago. He's still in junior high, and when he zigzagged into neighbors' yards, Trude told him to knock it off, scared that someone would call the cops. "You could've gotten shot just riding your bike in somebody's yard," she told him.
Over the summer, Trude joined protests in downtown Tyler against police brutality and held a sign with a black fist drawn in the center. When students started sending texts about emailing the school board to change the name not long after, the memory of those protests spurred Trude to act. She started researching. Did Robert E. Lee own slaves? Why was her school named after a man who owned slaves? In Ghana, Trude had walked through the Door of No Return, where for three centuries, slaves were shipped off the continent to Brazil, the Caribbean and America. Standing on the fort's stone floors, she wondered whether her ancestors had stood in the same spot, several hundred feet from the coast. It was the last bit of Africa they would see. Now she was in America, running for a school named after a man who owned slaves.
One mile left, and she makes her way home.
INSIDE THE Legion of Boom Boxing Gym, Trude squares up to an Everlast punching bag hung up on a metal bar above. She leans in, then darts back around. It's mid-July, a few weeks after she started taking boxing lessons, and she is still learning which hand to hit with first. Her gloves are on, and sometimes she forgets to bring them back toward her face after landing an imaginary blow.
Trude started boxing when a local trainer, DeMarcus Russeau, invited her to join his gym on the outskirts of town. It was a chance to try something new and to learn how to defend herself at school. Only if she needs to, Trude says, but she hasn't forgotten the threats kids made not too long ago -- the threats that prompted Laura's police report, which ultimately resulted in no charges. When Trude returns to school this fall, her biggest fear is that students will stare at her, that she'll become "the girl whose letter went viral," that the back hallways where she used to find peace will no longer be an option.
But when Russeau watches the runner, now a boxer in his gym, he doesn't see any of this. "She moves without fear," he says.
Russeau, who is Black, has lived in Tyler for most of his life and went to John Tyler High School. Three generations of Russeaus have lived on Confederate Street, though to them, it was just Fed Street. "I don't think anybody in my neighborhood in my age group even looked at it as 'Oh, man, we stay on a street named after a racist flag,'" he says.
Now 35, he remembers being in high school when the KKK organized a march in downtown Tyler. He has more stories too, part of the collective memory of the Black community that he wants Trude to understand. It's why he invited her to the gym, so she could be around the people whose cause was now hers.
"With her being from Ghana and only being here six years, she hasn't had the experiences that some of the people rooting for her have had," Russeau says. "People that went to school in the '60s when it was getting desegregated and having to nearly fistfight with people to go to class and play on the team, those are people's parents from my neighborhood. They're rooting for her to continue to speak out."
Still, he reads the comments online, the same ones Laura reads, and shakes his head. He wants Trude to know she's not doing this alone, that he has her back. Her first day at the gym, he pointed to the two, three guys around him. "We're going to drive you to your first day of school," he said.
His youngest son is 7, the next generation of Russeau men raised on the north side of Tyler. If the schools get renamed, Russeau says, his son will know that the girl who helped make it happen went to his daddy's gym.
ON THE EVENING of July 16, less than a month after Trude read her letter, the board meets again. While protestors gather in the parking lot outside, Trude streams the meeting from her living room, the laptop propped on a stool. Earlier that morning, Laura had r