Charlottesville attack fuels push to rename Austin’s Robert E. Lee Road

Aug 15, 2017

City Council Member Ann Kitchen on Tuesday said she will spearhead an effort to rename Robert E. Lee Road in South Austin as a chorus of residents call for the Confederate general’s name to be stricken from Austin streets in light of the Charlottesville, Va., attack.

Calls for the street to be renamed have grown since Saturday, when a suspected white supremacist rammed his car into a group of protesters in Charlottesville, many of them calling for the removal of a statue there of Lee. One woman was killed.

A note was left at a vandalized Robert E. Lee Road sign on Tuesday August 15, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman

“Seeing the hatred and the violence, it should shake us all to our core,” Kitchen said during an Austin City Council work session Tuesday. “I think it’s incumbent on all of us in responsibility for the entire country to stand up and say, ‘This is not who we are, and this is not who we are in Austin, this is not who we are in Texas, this is not who we are in the nation.’”

Kitchen said she would bring forward an application to change the name by Aug. 24 and ask the community to suggest alternatives. The road, which stretches south for about half a mile from Barton Springs Road at the Barton Creek Bridge, is in her council district.

In Austin, an online petition calling for Lee’s name to be stricken from Austin’s streets has garnered more than 13,400 signatures since Saturday.

A similar push led the Austin school board to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School in May 2016 after a white supremacist killed nine African-Americans during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. That mass killing also helped prompt the University of Texas to remove a bronze statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the Main Mall.

By initiating the street renaming process, Kitchen circumvents some of the requirements needed for a resident to change the name of the street, such as paying a $415 fee and owning property along the road. Kitchen will still need to submit a petition and seek out the input of residents who live on the road.

“The reason I thought that it was important to go ahead and bring this forward was to be responsive to the folks that have signed that petition, to the folks of that reached out to my office and not wait … and put a burden on the owners of that property that live on that street,” Kitchen said.

Without residents’ unanimous approval, the city will conduct a public hearing before taking any action.

During the work session, five other members of the council, including Mayor Steve Adler, said they would sign Kitchen’s petition. Adler posted online earlier in the day that it was time to rename the road, said he wanted “to state strongly and clearly that ours is a community where there is no place for hate.”

Every other member who chimed in voiced support for renaming the street.

Council Member Leslie Pool said she would also like to see Jeff Davis Avenue in northern Central Austin renamed, asked Kitchen to add it to her application and gave an early suggestion of calling that road Sojourner.

Council Member Greg Casar, an alumnus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, called for Robert E. Lee Road to be renamed on the day of the Charlottesville attack. Casar said to add his name to the petition, but added that the effort is not, as opponents sometimes contend, a way to erase or rewrite history. He said that historical plaques should be placed along streets like Robert E. Lee Road to explain how they got their names and why they were changed.

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The street appeared for the first time in the city’s directory of streets as Robert E. Lee Road in 1940, according to Austin History Center staff. American-Statesman archives also showed a 1938 article about the paving of the road.

Four street signs on the road were vandalized over the weekend, with Lee’s name crossed out with red spray paint. Police are investigating the vandalism as misdemeanor criminal mischief, a spokeswoman said.

The red paint over Lee’s name remained Tuesday. Somebody had stuck a note to it that said, “thank you person with spraypaint.”

The city will have to replace the signs at a cost of about $700. They cannot be simply cleaned because it would damage a reflective surface that makes the signs more visible at night, Transportation Department spokeswoman Marissa Monroy said.

And despite the political will coalescing around changing the street’s name, the shiny new Robert E. Lee signs will be put up in the coming weeks. The name-changing effort is expected to take months.

“It is a matter of safety,” Monroy said. “We have to have those signs up so people can see.”

Ultimately, Kitchen said, renaming the road is a small step in the larger problem of racism and inequality that the city has attempted to address a myriad of ways.

“Renaming a road is a symbol,” Kitchen said. “It’s an important, critical symbol. But we can’t just change the name of a road and say, ‘OK, we’ve fixed the problems in our community with regard to hatred and violence and racism.’”