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.