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Wheeler and Lee schools may be named after civic leaders, not Confederate generals

 

I write this as a history author who has written seven books about our city’s past, interviewed dozens of individuals who were a part of our history (many who have since passed away), and delved into a wide array of books, archives and documents.

The Oklahoma City Public School system may be about to spend $100,000 to rename Wheeler Elementary and Lee Elementary based on unsourced claims on the schools' websites that they were named after Confederate Generals Joseph Wheeler and Robert E. Lee.

But after talking with friend, former co-worker and current school board member Carrie Jacobs, I’ve learned the school system has so far not provided any documentation or evidence on the origin of these names.

The schools do not show full names. And based on their location and history, as a local history author, I wonder if school officials should back up and pause in what might be slander against the legacies of totally different people – men who were beloved and respected city fathers who had no ties to the Confederacy.

The remaining schools built in 1910, Lowell, Culbertson, Whittier, Central, Columbus, are not names associated with the Confederacy.

And we must wonder if Whittier Elementary was named after John Greenleaf Whittier, an aclaimed  American Quaker poet and advocate of the abolition of slavery in the United States. Buddy Johnson, meanwhile believes Lowell School, later known as Page Woodson School, was named after yet another famous poet and abolitionist, James Russell Lowell. I am pretty confident that Culbertson is named after early day civic leader and developer J.J. Culbertson.

What does all this tell us about the thinking of those who were naming schools in 1910?

The other two schools that clearly are linked to the Confederacy, Stand Waite Elementary and Stonewall Jackson Jr. High, were built in 1930, a completely different era. The schools are engraved with the full names, leaving no question as to their origins.

But let's go back to what got me concerned the school district is in-inadvertently slandering the legacy of good men.

My first concern was the claim that Wheeler Elementary was named after Confederate General Joseph Wheeler. That name has no connection to Oklahoma City or Oklahoma and I found no mention of the man in Oklahoman archives.

James B. Wheeler, however, is definitely the man whose legacy was sealed with the city’s naming of Wheeler Park, which is very close to Wheeler Elementary. And yeah, we really do know that Wheeler Park was named after James B. Wheeler.

Beyond the 100 percent evidence the park was named after James B. Wheeler, I have also been in contact with some former students who say as way back as the 1950s they were being told the school was named after James Wheeler, an early civic leader.

So, already we have a problem. The Wheeler name is being tainted by Oklahoma City Public School administrators who are not from Oklahoma City and I suspect they do not know much if anything about James B. Wheeler. Forgive me for being passionate about this topic. But history is important. I really wish school officials had talked first to someone like Bob Blackburn, director of the state historical society, or Larry Johnson, the archivist at the Metropolitan Library System and an expert on early day city history.

So let’s learn more about James Wheeler.

In 1902 Wheeler donated part of his neighborhood development to the city for a park that remains in use today. In its early days, the park features gardens, a skating rink, a miniature railroad and the city’s first zoo. (“Images of America: Oklahoma City Zoo” by Amy Dee Stpehens).

He was beloved. Here is a resolution passed by the Oklahoma City Council when he died in 1906, just a couple of years before planning began for Wheeler Elementary.

 

Oh, let’s look at one more consideration as to the name origin: the school is located in the Shidler-Wheeler neighborhood, part of which was developed by James B. Wheeler. We also have a Shidler Elementary built in 1930 that I believe, but cannot prove yet, was named after early Oklahoma City Public Schools board member C.R. Shidler, who advocated for hiring of teachers and staff based on qualifications and not political loyalties.

All of this prompted me to look at another name being tainted by Oklahoma City school officials – Lee Elementary.

Once again, the school’s head stone doesn’t read Robert E. Lee – just Lee Elementary. So we are again assuming Lee Elementary, which is a block away from Lee Avenue, is named after the Confederate General.

And again, we have no evidence Lee Elementary is named after the Confederate General. We do know that Lee Avenue, platted in 1901, was named after Oscar G. Lee as reported in the 1951 Chronicles of Oklahoma by Golda B. Slief, recording secretary for the 89er Society at a time when the original 89ers were still very much alive and active in creating a permanent record of our history.

So let's learn more about Oscar G. Lee:

Lee was first and foremost a real estate guy who played an instrumental role in building up downtown’s first significant skyline. One building, the Lee-Huckins Hotel, was a landmark destroyed by fire, rebuilt and reopened as the Huckins Hotel. It was also significant because it was the city’s first large, modern hotel – critical for a city aspiring to attract investment and new industry. (“The History of the State of Oklahoma” by Luther Hill.

The Lee Building, however, still stands. Built in 1904, it is now known as the Oil & Gas Building, home to Sweets & Eats, at Robinson Avenue and Main Street. http://newsok.com/article/3849638

Lee’s earliest contribution to the city, however, was reorganizing its troubled police force and confronting dangerous armed hoodlums. (“Oklahoma Justice” by Ron Owens). His wife Adelaide started the Five O’Clock Tea Club in 1906 to establish a day nursery for working mothers. (“Story of Oklahoma City” by William F. Kerr).

We also know from Lee family researcher Shelli Steedman that Lee was a philanthropist who financed college education for many girls.

UPDATE: Larry Johnson found even more reason to believe Lee School was named after Oscar G. Lee. After doing some further research on Monday, Johnson discovered Lee was the manager and vice president of the company that brought the meat plants to Oklahoma City. The school was built the same year as the plants and is located on the south end of the stockyards district.

"I think that is a pretty substantial coincidence," Johnson said.

I agree.

I greatly appreciate the work being done by Oklahoma City Public School administrators and teachers. They are facing incredible challenges with funding cuts and changes in our society and the headwinds of politics at large.

Consider this post not a jab at our schools, but rather a caution flag and an opportunity to possibly save $100,000 while leaving the overall concern with the remaining two schools to be discussed and debated.

Unless school officials find evidence in their archives showing Confederate origins for either school name, the context of the times might give them pause and realize they can save $100,000 and know the schools likely were named after good men whose legacies stand up pretty well.

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Steve Lackmeyer

Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's... Read more ›

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