E. Brooke Lee died more than 30 years ago, but his memory is alive — and stirring up controversy in suburban Maryland.
On Tuesday, Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) called on county school officials to rename Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School in Silver Spring. The school is being renovated and is scheduled to reopen in September 2021.
Navarro called it a “supreme irony” that a school in which more than 90 percent of its students are African American or Latino is named after Lee, a man with a “deeply disturbing racist history.”
Lee was a pivotal figure in Montgomery County during the first half of the 20th century. He was a World War I veteran, a large-scale developer and a skilled politician who dominated Democratic Party politics. Lee attached to his suburban properties racially restrictive covenants that limited who could live there, prohibiting African Americans from buying or renting homes in the subdivisions.
Lee also was an outspoken critic of new civil rights measures in Montgomery County in the 1960s. As late as 1967, he called on residents to reject what he called “anti-white laws” that he perceived as a threat to the properties he built. “Desegregation is not the answer,” Lee wrote.
The Lee family remains among the most prominent families in the county. Bruce H. Lee, the grandson of E. Brooke Lee, is president and CEO of Lee Development Group, a large real estate development and asset management company. Lee said he supports renaming the school, calling his grandfather’s zoning policies “wrong and inappropriate.”
“Colonel Lee did leave a large and favorable legacy in Montgomery County in many ways, but restrictive zoning was not one of them,” he said.
Few were aware of Lee’s background. Navarro was unaware of Lee’s views on race until the parent of a Montgomery County student sent her a Washington Post article exploring his past. “If you’re concerned about racial equity in our community, you should really address this,” the parent told Navarro, according to the Montgomery County Council president.
Leon Peace, a member of the school’s PTA and parent of an eighth-grader at Lee Middle School, said information distributed by the school paints an anodyne picture of Lee. In addition to listing his military, political and economic achievements, the school’s website says Lee was known as “Mr. Democrat” and the “Father of Modern Silver Spring.”
Some have tried and failed to change the school’s name. Jeanette E. Dixon, a member of the Montgomery County Board of Education, said she raised concerns about the name of the middle school years ago, but “nobody really paid attention.”
The board adheres to a strict school renaming policy that depends on community participation. Navarro has encouraged Jack R. Smith, the superintendent of the school system, and Shebra L. Evans (District 4), president of the board, to consider naming the school after an influential woman or person of color.
“We should honor folks who actually worked to address inequality instead in Montgomery County. . . . We know those stories exist here, so why not pay attention to them instead?” Navarro said.
Peace said that while Lee cannot be erased from history, students should not be taught to revere him.
“I wouldn’t want a person like Lee who said and did those things to be held up as an example to my son and other students,” he said.
Matthew Logan, executive director of the Montgomery County Historical Society, said the name change would reflect the changing demographics in Montgomery County, where 40 percent of the population is African American or Latino, and an estimated 1 in 3 county residents were born outside the United States.
“In that way, the backlash is not surprising; this is not the population Lee presided over, and it was not the same population when the board named the school after him in 1966,” Logan said.