BATON ROUGE, La. — A viral video online shows a Louisiana school board member being chastised by a community member who called the elected official arrogant and racist.
During an East Baton Rouge Parish School Board meeting Thursday, officials encouraged community members to explain why they believed a local school should be renamed and to suggest alternate names. The school in question, Lee High School, was named in honor of Confederate general Robert. E. Lee. In Baton Rogue, where more than 50% of residents are black, many people have criticized the name, saying it memorializes a man who owned hundreds of slaves.
“General Lee inherited a large plantation, and he was tasked with the job of doing something with those people who lived in bondage to that plantation -- the slaves -- and he freed them,” Bernard said.
According to History.com, Lee inherited his father-in-law’s plantation, his debts and about 200 slaves.
“Lee’s treatment of the slaves was described as being so combative and harsh that it led to slave revolts,” according to the site.
Community member Gary Chambers said he planned to speak about why Lee was not an appropriate figure to honor during Thursday’s meeting, but instead, he shifted gears and addressed Bernard.
Chambers said Bernard wasn’t open to changing her stance and didn’t care to hear the opinions of residents, a claim he supported by showing attendees a photo he had captured that showed Bernard shopping online during constituents’ presentations.
“I had intended to get up here and talk about how racist Robert E. Lee was, but I’m going to talk about you, Connie. 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 and history in this country,” Chambers said.
Chambers referenced Lee’s tactics as a slave owner and the large number of casualties during the Battle of Gettysburg, in which Lee led the Confederate army, as some of the reason’s he was not a figure to be celebrated.
“You sit your arrogant self in here and sit there shopping while the pain and hurt of the people of this community is on display,” Chambers said. “You should resign ... You should walk out of here and resign and never come back because you are the example of racism in this community. You are horrible.”
During Chambers’ speech, Bernard walked out of the room.
Bernard later said that she wasn’t shopping and that she left the room to use the restroom.
“I was actually taking notes, paying attention, reading online comments,” she told The Advocate.
She also told the news outlet that she had had issues with technology and that what people thought they saw was actually a pop-up ad.
Arthur Pania, another community member who attended the meeting said he saw Bernard shopping online for at least eight minutes.
“I personally watched her for about 8 minutes,” he wrote in a post. “Attempting to decide between a beige and red dress. The only thing I had issue determining from my sight was if it was a short dress or nightware.”
See the Chambers’ full message in the video below. Note: Explicit language.
During Thursday’s meeting, many of Bernard’s fellow board members expressed their disappointment in her suggestion that people research Lee more before insisting that the school change it’s name.
“It’s unfortunate that the comments that you made were just extremely tone-deaf to our collective community, extremely tone-deaf to the students of our district, and I would be remiss if I didn’t stand up to that,” Tremelle Howard, the vice president of the school board, told Bernard.
Another board member, Dadrius Lanus wrote a lengthy post on Facebook addressing Bernard:
“You had every single opportunity to apologize after you embarrassed our school board on the news by openly supporting the legacy of Robert E. Lee, but you did not,” he wrote. “You had every opportunity to apologize during the board meeting, but instead you chose to shop for dresses while members from our community, including parents and teachers, waited seven hours to speak on an item that concerns our students.”
Bernard released a statement on Friday, saying: “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. 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.”
Bernard also said that she agrees with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, The Advocate reported. After receiving pushback on his recent comments regarding the American flag, the athlete said, “We have a long way to go ... We can do better. We are all part of the solution.”
“I promise I will be part of the solution,” Bernard said.
The school board ultimately voted in support of changing the name of the school. Chambers, who recommended a few black historical figures, said he stands by his decision to address Bernard at Thursday’s meeting and hopes that she will resign from her position on the board.
“When we don’t confront elected officials, we give them permission to disrespect us and to devalue us. Connie needs to resign. I stand on that,” he said.
A Change.org petition urging Bernard to resign garnered more than 7,200 signatures as of Sunday afternoon.
According to WAFB-TV, board members cannot legally vote to remove a member, but a voter recall could oust Bernard from her position if she decides not to resign.
Those who support her resignation are also pointing to an August 2018 incident in which she engaged in a physical conflict with a teenager. Bernard also apologized for that incident.
Bernard, whose term ends in 2022, previously served as the school board’s vice president, WAFB-TV reported.
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