Is the Lowell Showboat’s Name Racist?

For the past year, Confederate monuments across the country have been toppled, and Lowell too has found itself grappling with issues surrounding the appropriateness of using certain names and symbols. Some have questioned whether the city’s showboat should bear the name of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General in the Civil War that ended more than 150 years ago.

The question has had a rippling effect, including the recent resignation of Alan Teelander from the Lowell City Council. After a progressive publication portrayed Teelander as sympathetic to keeping the name and therefore racist, the former Mayor Pro Tem decided to step down from his position. “After this most recent lie about me, I have tendered my resignation effective midnight, August 10, 2017, to spare the City further controversy,” he said in a written statement.

All this begs the question: is the Lowell Showboat’s name racist?

Why the Lowell Showboat is Called the Robert E. Lee

The Showboat wasn’t always called the Robert E. Lee. It was christened the George Washington when originally launched in 1932. However, that version of the boat was soon replaced by another.

“In 1935 a second craft, the ‘Robert E. Lee’ was built to resemble the old riverboat steamers that traveled the Mississippi River long ago,” wrote the Lowell Area Historical Museum in 2000. The name was selected as an homage to one of the most famous Mississippi River steamboats. Known as the Monarch of the Mississippi, the original Robert E. Lee was launched in 1866 and was renowned for its speed.

Since that first Robert E. Lee was built in Lowell 82 years ago, three more boats have followed, all bearing the same name.

Our Take: It’s About Our Local History, Not Our National History

If we can editorialize for a moment, we here at Lowell’s First Look would argue that the name of the Lowell Showboat is not racist. After all, the boat is named after another boat and not the Confederate General himself.

However, we can see why people might question the appropriateness of having a local icon share its name with a man who fought to preserve the practice of slavery. Certainly, we nor any other resident of Lowell we know would want to champion General Lee’s legacy as our own.

Still, despite the fact that no one is sympathetic to a defender of slavery, many bristle at the idea of changing the name from the Robert E. Lee. Why? We opine that it has less to do with our nation’s history and more to do with our local history.

For 82 years, a boat bearing the name Robert E. Lee has sat in the Flat River at Lowell. For 82 years, these boats have served as the backdrop to concerts, high school graduations and city festivals. For 82 years, the history of this city has been intertwined with boats bearing the name ‘Robert E. Lee.’ People clamoring for a name change are asking Lowell residents to turn their backs on 82 years of history because some assign a meaning to the name that is different from its actual origin.

We would guess that without the occasional reminder from outsiders, many local residents wouldn’t even be able to tell you that the boat is named the Robert E. Lee. For many of us who live, work and play here, it is simply the Lowell Showboat.

Should the name be changed? Maybe, if residents feel a different moniker would be more appropriate. The Ivan K. Blough, in the honor of the builder of the current boat, has been batted around as one idea. Others, like Teelander, have suggested local figures who have Civil War connections, such as Benjamin Morse.

Now that the Showboat is being rebuilt, perhaps it’s time to have a discussion about the boat’s name – not because the current name is racist but because maybe there is a more fitting name that reflects Lowell’s heritage.

Or maybe Lowell residents don’t want a change. Maybe after four boats and 82 years of the Robert E. Lee, they want to continue the tradition of that name. And you know what? That should be ok too.


  1. Of course, there is the song “Waiting For The Robert E. Lee.” (Check out the lyrics. Very 19th century.)
    Moreover, considering the “Lowell history” that includes blackface endmen that continued into the 60’s…let’s just start over. Scuttle R.E.L., skip the sexist names (Princess? Queen? Really?) and proudly embrace Lowell Showboat.

  2. It seems pretty simple to me. To most people I know it has always been the Lowell Showboat. That should continue to be it’s name. “Lowell Showboat “.

  3. It seems pretty simple to me. It has always been the Lowell Showboat. No need to name it after a person. It’s name is and should remain the “Lowell Showboat”.

    • Perhaps Lowell “missed the boat”…simply renaming the boat in Lowell does not take away decades of community MINSTREL shows performed with black-faced entertainers, etc. Many of the songs previously used in the actual Lowell performances have been removed in public school music classes as they are politically insensitive. It is not just the name of the boat itself that is racist, rather, it is the entire concept of “showboats” with Minstrel shows that is racist. In this day and age,and considering the historical concept of showboats, will Lowell choose to remain the “Showboat City”?

  4. In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.

    — Robert E. Lee, to Mary Anna Lee, December 27, 1856.

    The evidence cited in favor of the claim that Lee opposed slavery included his direct statements and his actions before and during the war, including Lee’s support of the work by his wife and her mother to liberate slaves and fund their move to Liberia,[69] the success of his wife and daughter in setting up an illegal school for slaves on the Arlington plantation,[70] the freeing of Custis’ slaves in 1862, and, as the Confederacy’s position in the war became desperate, his petitioning slaveholders in 1864–65 to allow slaves to volunteer for the Army with manumission offered as a reward for outstanding service

    In March 1861, Lee was promoted to full colonel by US President Abraham Lincoln. However a few weeks later Virginia seceded and Lee was offered command of the Union forces as major general. He declined the offer as it would require him to invade the South. Mary Lee later called the moment of choosing between the Union and Virginia as “the severest struggle” of her husband’s life. Lee prayed for two days after which he resigned from the US army and accepted command of Virginia’s forces.

    He dont sound like a racist to me!!

  5. It’s more than feeling offended. Musicians have refused to perform here because of the name of the boat. I have talked to people who feel they are not welcome in Lowell because of the name.

    To them it is an obvious sign that this is some place they should not go. This is contrary to the mission of the showboat which is to attract people to our town.

    I’m in favor of traditional riverboat names like “Flat River Princess”, “Flat River Queen”, or “Lowell Lady”

  6. What about naming it Daniel Marsac?
    The original founder of Dansville now known as Lowell.
    Or maybe the Runciman & Borgerson, which were the talent chairman and interlocutor, and general chairman.

  7. It says in the article “many local residents wouldn’t even be able to tell you the name”. If that’s truly the case, sounds like it isn’t the name that’s important anyway, but the boat itself. So, change the name! Things change. The “shows” aren’t there anymore either, yet it’s the town’s heritage. Doesn’t take away from local history to rename the boat. It adds to the history.

  8. …or the Forrest Buck, the Gordon Gould, the C.H. Runciman. Many great people throughout our history have had a great part in the Showboat. The most important thing is that it was a team, never an individual, so not sure I’m in favor of naming after a Showboat volunteer. I like the Benjamin Morse suggestion if it has to change, but I’m totally fine with the Robert E. Lee. The current boat was designed after the Disney boats, so maybe Liberty Belle or Mark Twain would be appropriate. Then again, maybe the new boat will look entirely different again. Tempest in a teapot. Sorry Alan got burned.

  9. Walking on egg shells because someone may feel offended is ridiculous. Some will always be offended by something. I love the current name because it’s all I’ve ever known. Would I like to be named after Ivan? Yes. If it’s not the Robert E Lee then the Ivan K Blough is the next best thing.

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