Azie Taylor Morton helped to desegregate Barton Springs and remains the first and only African-American to serve as U.S. treasurer. A freed slave, William H. Holland fought for the Union in the Civil War and later served as a Travis County commissioner.
Both could become the newest names to adorn Austin street signs if the Austin City Council votes Thursday to remove the names of two of the Confederacy’s most important figures from two streets.
The proposed change from Robert E. Lee Road in South Austin and Jeff Davis Avenue in North Austin to Azie Taylor Morton Road and William Holland Avenue, respectively, would mark the latest removal of Confederate icons’ names from local government designations. It also would come in the wake of the removal of statues honoring Confederate leaders from the University of Texas campus and other sites across the South.
The public will have a chance to weigh in on the proposed changes during Thursday’s meeting at City Hall.
While the progressive population of Austin might favor the changes, a majority of the people contacted by the city who live in the vicinity of the streets were opposed to renaming them.
City summaries of their input showed that some complained about having to change addresses on bank accounts, driver’s licenses and deeds. The most common complaint, though, was that renaming the streets was a capitulation to politically correct forces determined to bury history, even if tragic history.
“My opposition isn’t politically motivated, but stems from strong personal concerns about current trends that would attempt to ‘whitewash’ history, rather than own it and meet the challenge (and reward) of actually comprehending it,” one respondent wrote concerning Robert E. Lee Road.
Many along Jeff Davis Avenue wondered whether the road was even named for the president of the Confederacy. One “old-timer” apparently heard it was actually named after an Arkansas governor who held that office 1901-07.
A common complaint from those who live along and near Robert E. Lee Road was that Azie Taylor Morton Road would be a longer, more complicated street name. They instead offered numerous alternatives, including naming the street after Stevie Ray Vaughan, Charles Umlauf or Lady Bird Johnson. They also suggested calling it SOS Avenue, Blind Salamander Way or Waterloo Way.
“Can you imagine having to spell such a long name EVERY time you give someone your address?” one person said.
But not everyone who responded was against a change. For Jeff Davis Avenue, 20 of the 58 responses were in favor of a new name. Twenty of the 65 responses about Robert E. Lee Road backed a change.
“Her rise to the position of treasurer of the United States deserves the pride and appreciation of America, Texas and Austin!” one respondent wrote. “We would be honored to have her name grace the street sign on Spring Creek and Robert E. Lee, which happens to be our front yard.”
If the proposals are approved, erecting new street signs will cost about $2,100, according to the city.
Jeff Davis Avenue is in Council Member Leslie Pool’s district. She said she first learned of Holland while doing historical research into members of the Travis County Commissioners Court.
“When the renaming of the street came up, he was at the top of my mind,” Pool said. “His presence in Austin was significant but unheralded.”
Pool noted that Holland founded the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institute for Colored Youth in Austin in 1887. He served as head of the school for two stints. The school, located on a 100-acre tract off of Bull Creek Road between 35th and 45th streets, later became known as the Texas Blind, Deaf and Orphan School, and Morton graduated from it in 1952 at the age of 16.
The school is considered a precursor to the Texas School for the Blind at 45th Street and Burnet Road.
While in Austin, Morton was known to participate in “swim ins” at Barton Springs, which was segregated until the 1960s. She graduated from Huston-Tillotson University in 1956 and worked locally as an educator and with the Texas AFL-CIO before heading to Washington after President Jimmy Carter named her U.S. treasurer in 1977.
If you go
The Austin City Council will hold public hearings on renaming Robert E. Lee Road and Jeff Davis Avenue sometime after 4 p.m. Thursday at Austin City Hall, 301 W. Second St.