- Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
More than 500 Austin residents have signed a petition calling for a new name for Austin’s Robert E. Lee Elementary School, which was named after the Confederate general in 1939. Those requesting the change include the school’s campus advisory council, which voted unanimously for it.
On the other side, 450 people from all over have signed an online petition to leave Lee Elementary’s name alone, saying both the name and the school should be preserved. Some of them are now pushing for a designation from the city of Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission, though some district leaders don’t believe such a designation would affect changing the school’s name.
Monday night, the Austin school board will decide whether to begin the process of finding a new name for Lee — the first school in the Austin district to request a name change amid a national rethinking of monuments to the Confederacy. Three other Austin schools are named after Confederate figures, and another has a rebel mascot that connotes Confederate imagery. But the school board has decided to take up the renaming request with Lee first. While some have advocated for the change at other campuses, there has been nowhere near as much attention as at Lee Elementary, located just outside the Hyde Park neighborhood.
Proponents of the name change include Dave Junker, who sees the name as an affront to the five African-American children that he and his wife have adopted. Two of their children are students at Lee now.
“The Confederacy fought to defend slavery,” Junker said. “That shouldn’t be too difficult to understand why that should be a problem. But we persist in honoring these school names despite the fact this is a problem.”
Changes have been made to several public buildings and institutions, including in Central Texas, since last summer, when nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., were killed by a white gunman who has been linked to a racist manifesto posted online. A statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was removed from its prominent setting on the University of Texas campus last year (though statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders remain).
And in Houston, the school board this year voted to rename seven schools named after men tied to the Confederacy, including one named for Lee.
But there has been vocal opposition to the changes across Texas, and Austin is no exception.
Caroline Roberts, who has twin boys who attend Lee Elementary, said she and others believe the school building should be preserved as a historic landmark because of its 1930s art deco architecture and because it was federally funded under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, among other reasons. She presented her research on the school’s 75-year history, original construction and alterations, historic photos and biography of the architect last month to the city Historic Landmark Commission, which will discuss the nomination on March 28.
“As a property owner of several historically designated homes, I feel it’s extremely important to preserve the Robert E. Lee school building in its entirety,” she told school trustees at a recent meeting. “I ask that the board of trustees provide the Historic Landmark Commission sufficient time to investigate this important aspect of Robert E. Lee school. Extra time will cost nothing, but a quick decision to change the name and ignore the building’s historical significance would be very costly to future generations.”
On the Austin school board, none has been as vocal about the Confederate names as Trustee Ted Gordon, who is African-American, who calls it a moral issue, not a bureaucratic one.
He points out that most of the schools were named for Confederate heroes in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Gordon is among those who say the names were meant as a deliberate slap in the face to minority students after the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision Brown v. Board of Education.
“Previous boards decided to name schools after Confederate heroes as a reaffirmation, in the case of Lee, of the district’s ongoing segregation, and in the cases of Reagan and Johnston, as a kind of defiant statement in relation to the national effort to desegregate public schools,” Gordon said.
“Since the previous boards engaged in those kinds of activities, it’s the responsibility of successor boards, such as ours, to think about the appropriateness of those names and intentions those boards had,” he said. “… Those buildings were named with racist intent.”
At least one trustee, Ann Teich, has asked that the names be left alone, saying she didn’t think changing them would improve race relations and instead suggesting the district lead community discussions about racial issues and how to address them.
Trustee Amber Elenz said she’s for the change because too much time has been taken from the campus administration when its focus should be on educating students. “I want the school to be out of the front lines,” Elenz said. “It’s interrupting the work at Lee.”