"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 st