- Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
The Austin school board on Monday night voted to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary, the first time the district has changed the name of a school because of its ties to the Confederacy.
In an 8-1 vote, trustees chose Russell Lee Elementary, the name favored among the school’s parents and teachers. Trustee Paul Saldaña cast the dissenting vote.
Some community members voiced support for that name because the school already is referred to as just Lee, and the majority of trustees went along with that recommendation.
Russell Lee was a critically acclaimed Depression-era photographer and a founder of the University of Texas photography department. He also lived in the neighborhood. A major collection of his work is archived at the University of Texas’ Briscoe Center for American History.
Trustee Amber Elenz said she felt the board should honor the choice made by parents and teachers at the school.
“This name change is really only happening because the school asked us to make it happen,” Elenz said. “The decision of name choices came to us solely through the hard work, long hours and collaborative efforts of the school’s leadership within the campus’ advisory council. The recommendation to name the school Russell Lee Elementary is the result of a clearly defined, open, transparent and purposeful process that was developed by and for the Lee Elementary school community.”
But a push to have the school named for Bettie Mann, the campus’ first African-American teacher, resulted in the board naming the school’s kindergarten hall after her in the same vote.
Saldaña said he decided not to support the Russell Lee option because he felt renaming the campus with another Lee name defeated the purpose for the change and that he preferred Bettie Mann Elementary.
“For me it wasn’t about rewriting history; it was about shaping the culture of AISD moving forward,” Saldaña said. “As a community and a district, we should stay true to our core values of equity, diversity and inclusion and that we now have an opportunity to shape our culture moving forward.”
Mann attended the meeting, telling the board she has been honored that trustees and the school community considered her name as an option for the school.
“It was a real privilege to teach at Robert E. Lee school,” said Mann, who spent 37 years at the campus, including 22 years as a full time kindergarten teacher. Her sons were the school’s first African-American students in the 1960s.
The third finalist name was Wheeler’s Grove, the site of Austin’s first Juneteenth celebrations and a well-known public gathering for African-Americans from the late 1860s to the early 1900s. Elenz said the campus community is considering naming the playground and track area after Wheeler’s Grove.
More than 240 suggestions were submitted as possibilities to replace the school name, including several sassy retorts probably from those opposed to making any kind of name change — such as Hypothetical Perfect Person Memorial Elementary School. In late April, the campus advisory council announced it had narrowed the list to eight.
The issue of whether to change the school’s name was debated for months. Austin community members called on the district to change the name in the wake of last year’s church shootings in Charleston, S.C., which killed nine African-Americans and prompted a national conversation about whether flags and other Confederate symbols belong in public spaces and buildings.
Ultimately, more than 500 residents signed a petition calling for a new name for Lee, which was named after the Confederate general in 1939. Lee has been Austin’s only campus to request a name change.