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Why new school namesake Russell Lee is remembered

Recently, the city of Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission voted to grant Lee Elementary, built in 1939, landmark status. Still, as reported by Melissa B. Taboada, the Austin school district will go ahead with the planned name change from Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, to Russell Lee, the photographer and University of Texas teacher.

Both sides on the naming issue appear to agree that the building, constructed by the Works Progress Administration, is architecturally significant. At issue is whether to preserve the art deco lettering over the school’s entrance that reads “Robert E. Lee,” as well as the placement of a bronze plaque.

Many Austinites are unaware of the range and depth of Russell Lee’s work. We will soon publish a sizable number of his images from throughout his career. Many are already online at the Austin Found blog.

Among the most fascinating are those housed in the Russell Lee Collection at UT’s Briscoe Center for American History. Available online, for instance, are digital selections from “Study of Spanish-Speaking People of Texas” (1949), the record of a return to communities he had documented in 1939 for the Farm Security Administration.

A former painter, Lee viewed documentary photography as an art, and indeed, he taught in UT’s College of Fine Arts. He was able to capture the timeless and the timely in the same frame. And like his Depression-era documentary colleague Dorothea Lange, he lent even the most down-and-out figures a lasting dignity.

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