What I Learned at Robert E. Lee Elementary School

By Abe J. Wasserberger

Growing up in Tampa Florida, as a Jew and child of Survivors during the 50’s and 60’s, was not always easy. The KKK held frequent rally’s in our neighborhood and at the Knights of Columbus. They paraded in public and operated with impunity. It’s 1958, I’m 6 years old, my Elementary school – of course, Robert E. Lee Elementary[1] on Central Ave. During my daily walk to and from school, I passed a local sundry store that posted a sign in the window – “Jews, colored and dogs not served.”

The Tampa Jewish community was small then, and sought to unite in strength through joining in moral support with other minorities. Politically conservative as a city, the Jewish communal battle cry was usually “zye schteal,” (Yiddish for be quiet). And quiet we were. Working quietly, a few prominent leaders banded together with our Italian friends to quietly relocate the regional headquarters of the KKK out of town. We worked quietly to find and hire immigrants to fill jobs as Tampa grew. We took care of our own and anyone else we could help, even setting up a welcome wagon committee to warmly greet and assist in the settlement of new immigrants.

Yet, there were times when we could not “zye schteal.” We voiced concern to those who would listen including our political leaders. I recall going with my father to a lunch meeting with Congressman Sam Gibbons. Sam was thoughtful, empathetic and responsive. He could easily identify hatred, evil, and bigotry. He identified with the common person and we knew he had our back.

As a Jew, in the first grade at Robert E. Lee Elementary School, I was not hard to spot. Remember roll call? The teacher would call out “Johnny,” and if Johnny was in the room he would reply, “here.” This happened every day at Robert E. Lee. “Tom” – “here”; Jane – here; Abraham Jacob Wasserberger “oye, here,” I responded. The teacher would not change her approach nor would my fellow students cease the taunting, teasing and frequent attacks, simply for being Jewish.

I’m sure this experience is not unique. However, what happened next was extraordinary. By the second and third grade I organized an immigrants club comprised of kids in grades 3-6 throughout the school. Our common bond was to protect and help each other and our families. We remained close throughout our public-school education.

What I learned as a young boy attending Robert E. Lee Elementary School was that a condition precedent existed which legitimated the bigotry, racism and hate filled behaviors of fellow 6, 7 and 8-year-old classmates. I also learned that positive change was possible if and only if, I could get the right people to join the club and together we would develop, organize and thoughtfully carry out a plan of action. After all, people support what they help to build.

The teachers and administrators at Robert E. Lee Elementary knew about the brawls, hate filled speech and institutional racism that existed on school grounds, but did nothing. It was only when I was in the 6th grade that the actions of our little immigrant’s club gained the transformative attention of school administrators and the public at large. An inner school challenge was laid down between a gang of bully’s (kids from the Hillsborough County Children’s Home) and our little immigrants club. The fight would take place at a baseball field located several blocks off school property. Word of the brawl spread throughout the school. Tensions were high. We knew this was going to hurt.

It was a little after 3 PM November 21, 1963, as the crowd gathered. The main event was a one-on one fist fight between the leaders of both groups – Todd, representing the Children’s Home and Abe, the immigrants club. It started – we circled each other, kicking up dust, as the heat of day rose. Just as we made physical contact, prepared to clash until one of us cried uncle, I felt a powerful hand grab my shirt and pull me back. It was one of the teachers from RELee. “What are you boys fighting about,” he asked. Todd spit and screamed – “he is a no-good Jew,” I responded – “my friends and I have been defending ourselves against these punks for several years. What have we done to deserve any of this?” The crowd grew silent; the teacher directed us to shake hands, break up the gathering and go home. The next day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

There are more than 200 schools named for a confederate. An effort has been revived by the Tampa neighborhood community to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School to something more decent and hopeful. Americans of color see the slavery era and confederate symbols as a horrific torturous bookmark in history. No less shocking than if a Jew in Germany walked under a statue of Hitler or had to send their child to the Joseph Mengele Elementary School. This, of course, would never occur. There are no statues of Hitler or his henchmen in all of Germany. The evil history of that era is not on display to be memorialized! The truth about evil in the world disguised as man is on exhibition in numerous Holocaust Memorial Museums and sites throughout the county. Can the same be said of how America has dealt with its past, in an effort to improve the condition of all of its citizens?

Much of the words and actions of President Trump are repugnant and abnormal for the office he represents – yet, he alone is not to blame for rise of hatred, evil, and bigotry in America and elsewhere. The condition precedent elected him even as his actions and words legitimize and embolden the condition.

If we are to see progress in our midst, then it will be up to each of us NOT to zye schteal, but to get involved in social justice activities – Tikun Olam – to heal the world, to protect the vulnerable and give voice to the positive transformation of our American vision.

Guided by the experiences and adventures of my youth, I preferred to strengthen and secure Jewish life full-time. Now 42 years later, I’m still working at it. May we continue to work toward an enduring and promising future in American, Israel and around the world.

[1] Built circa 1906 and located on the south side of Columbus Dr. between Jefferson and Morgan streets in Tampa Florida. Robert E. Lee Elementary School is the county’s oldest brick school building.

Abe J. Wasserberger is Senior V.P. Israel and Global Philanthropy at The Jewish Agency for Israel.