Baton Rouge school board calls for the resignation of fellow member following viral video

A school board member in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was called out in a meeting after she defended naming a high school after Robert E. Lee, the Commander of the Confederate Army.

Posted: Jun 23, 2020 11:21 AM
Updated: Jun 23, 2020 11:21 AM

Members of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board are calling for the resignation of a fellow member after a viral video showed her being criticized for her defense of a school named after Robert E. Lee and for what appeared to be her online shopping at a hearing over renaming it.

"We the members present are calling for the immediate resignation of our colleague Connie Bernard," school board Vice President Tramelle Howard said to reporters Monday. "Thursday evening was over 400 years of pain and hurt on display, and our colleague decided to ignore the cry of our community and totally misrepresent us as a school board."

The board cannot remove a sitting member, he said.

Amid a renewed reckoning with systemic racism spurred by the police killing of George Floyd, the district met Thursday over a resolution to set up a committee to rename "Lee High School," which was originally named after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

But days before the hearing, board member Connie Bernard said she wanted to keep the name to honor the school's legacy. She also encouraged people to do more research into Lee's history, saying that he freed the enslaved people on his plantation, according to CNN affiliate WVLA/WGMB.

In a video that has since gone viral, activist Gary Chambers Jr. addressed Bernard directly at the hearing for her comments and for a photo of what appeared to be Bernard shopping online as the resolution was discussed.

Ultimately, the school board resolution was unanimously approved, with all nine members, including Bernard, voting in favor, according to the meeting's minutes.

Bernard has since apologized for her remarks, according to CNN affiliate WBRZ.

"My comments last week about the naming of Lee High School were insensitive, have caused pain for others, and have led people to believe I am an enemy of people of color, and I am deeply sorry," she said. "I condemn racial injustice in any form. I promise to be part of the solution and to listen to the concerns of all members of our community. I stand with you, in love and respect."

'A dog whistle message'

Chambers called Bernard an example of the community's racism and called for her resignation as well during the hearing.

He told CNN's Don Lemon Monday night that memorializing confederate figures has a severe impact.

"You can send a dog whistle message to black people that no matter how far you've come we're never going to recognize you equally," Chambers said.

Schools and monuments should include Black American historical elected officials in national memory, he said, suggesting the school should be named after someone such as Louisiana's first Black governor, P.B.S. Pinchback.

"We need to know that there were people centuries ago that were advocating for us," he said. "The truth is folks who got elected in the 1800s are the impetus of Jim Crow laws because they saw the power of the black folk. They saw the power of black unity and progress and so they immediately put laws in place that prevented that progress for 150 years, and then they began to honor those people by naming buildings."

Chambers accuses Bernard of online shopping during hearing

As Chambers stepped up to address the school board Thursday, he brought a photo of what he saw Bernard doing during the hearing.

"I had intended to get up here and talk about how racist Robert E Lee was, but I'm gonna talk about you, Connie," Chambers said. "Sitting over there shopping while we're talking about Robert E. Lee. This is a picture of you shopping while we're talking about racism in history in this country."

Bernard, who did not respond to CNN's request for comment, told The Advocate on Friday that what people saw on her laptop was not her shopping, but rather a pop-up ad that she failed to close.

"I wasn't shopping," she told the newspaper. "I was actually taking notes, paying attention, reading online comments."

Chambers, though, then posted video with a 20-second clip of her scrolling on the shopping website.

The history of Robert E. Lee

Bernard encouraged people to learn more about Lee to defend keeping the school his namesake, but Chambers said Lee was a "brutal" slave master, cited a slave's account of being beaten, and told the board to "stop being in 1856."

Lee personally owned enslaved people and he assumed command of 189 others after his father-in-law died in 1857, according to the American Civil War Museum.

The father-in-law's will stipulated that the enslaved people be freed within five years, but Lee petitioned state courts to extend his control over them, the museum states. State courts denied his petitions, and Lee officially freed the enslaved people on December 29, 1862 -- just days before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lee also punished escape attempts harshly. In 1859, he ordered the whipping of three enslaved people who tried to escape, according to an 1866 account by Wesley Norris.

"Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined (a county constable) to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done," Norris said in the account.

On Facebook last week, the school board member who introduced the resolution, Dadrius Lanus, asked Bernard to more closely look into this history.

"I say to you Ms. Bernard that Robert E. Lee is not a man to be honored by our students, especially students of color!" he wrote. "To force our students to attend a school with such a name is not only degrading but it is culturally insensitive and a violation of our students' rights!"

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