Austin trustees revive talk of renaming schools with Confederate ties

6:27 p.m Friday, Sept. 1, 2017 Local
Laura Skelding
The Austin school board voted to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Central Austin, removing the name of a Confederate general. The school was renamed Russell Lee Elementary.

The Austin school board is renewing its discussion of whether a handful of Austin district campuses with names linked to the Confederacy need to be renamed.

After a rally by white supremacists fighting removal of a Confederate monument turned deadly in Charlottesville, Va., Austin board President Kendall Pace said she wants the issue on the board’s agenda.

In a tweet last week, Pace said, “Schools named = monuments. The time is now.”

Last year, trustees voted to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School, named after possibly the most famous Confederate, amid a push for the change from community members, including parents of Lee students. It was the first time the district changed the name of a school because of its association with the Confederacy. Trustees renamed the school Russell Lee Elementary, after a critically acclaimed Depression-era photographer.

The decision evoked strong emotions in the community and at school board meetings. Tempers flared. Parents cried explaining that their children who are African-American felt marginalized by the school name. Some argued the board was attempting to erase history.

But there are still four Austin schools with names related to the Confederacy: Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston campus, named after Confederate Gen. Albert S. Johnston; Sidney Lanier High School, named after the noted Southern poet who fought for the Confederacy; and John H. Reagan High School, named after the postmaster general for the Confederacy. Travis High School’s mascot is the Rebels.

IN-DEPTH: Confederate names on Austin schools date back to civil rights era

A few trustees said they feel having another discussion about whether the rest of the names need to be changed is necessary and timely, while others want to wait until after the November bond election.

It’s unclear whether trustees will go beyond a discussion. At the time the Lee school name was changed, trustees said the name change occurred because the school’s community pushed for it, but there were no plans to rename the other schools with Confederate-linked names.

Last year, trustees said they didn’t see interest from other school communities, and actually saw resistance to name changes.

“We prefer name changes to come from the communities, but in light of the rise of the glorification of Confederate symbols by white supremacists and hate groups, we cannot passively sit by,” Pace said. “We too must rise to the occasion and show that we live our values of inclusion and safety.”

“It is a departure from where we left it,” last year, Pace said. “But there needs to be conversation.”

UT removes Confederate statues overnight to quell protest, conflict

The original Lee name was given in 1939 for the Hyde Park neighborhood campus, which was whites-only at that time. The other campuses named for Confederates date to the civil rights movement, after a federal court order to desegregate schools. They all serve mostly minority students.

Trustee Ted Gordon, the only African-American on the board, said he also wants to have another talk about the names. Gordon said those school communities and the district should spend time educating the school populations on how the campuses received their names and who the namesakes were before deciding how to proceed.

“If other institutions in the city, state and country are moving on this issue, it does not reflect well on AISD if AISD doesn’t even discuss it,” Gordon said.

COURTS: UT prevails in lawsuit over Confederate statue removal

Other districts across the country, including Dallas and Houston, have moved forward with such name changes. Last month, statues of Confederate leaders were removed from the University of Texas campus.

Trustee Ann Teich said she isn’t opposed to changing school names, but the district must ensure the campus communities, particularly the students, participate in the discussion. She said the district must also examine the consequences that making such a change can bring, including the actions of those angry about such a change and the potential for distractions on campus.

“I’ve never been opposed to changing the names, but I want people to think through the ramifications,” Teich said. “We’ve seen the ugliness that it brings out. If this will bring us forward on more discussions on racism and segregation, then I say let’s do it. … It needs to be managed in a way that people are heard, but the ugliness needs to be dissipated as much as possible. My real concern is about the angry people who will glob onto this and make this less than a peaceful process.”

View full experience