After a rally by white supremacists fighting removal of a Confederate monument turned deadly in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, the response in Austin came swiftly.
Austin City Council members immediately began paperwork to rename Robert E. Lee Road, near Zilker Park, and Jeff Davis Avenue, near Allandale. At the Capitol, state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, demanded removal of a Confederate plaque near his office. House Speaker Joe Straus suggested the State Preservation Board should review signs and monuments around the Capitol grounds for accuracy.
“There’s so much we should be celebrating, we don’t need to celebrate a past that has racist or segregationist histories,” Mayor Steve Adler said Friday on CNN. “We’re responsible now for moving past that.”
It is the second time the nation has revisited its public monuments to the Confederacy since the summer of 2015, when white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine black churchgoers in South Carolina. More than a dozen of those monuments remain in the Austin area.
While some Austin community members welcomed the proposed changes, others have questioned the quick reactions and the charged debates they ignite. Where does it end? Which nods to a Confederate past are records of history and which are celebrations of hatred? What about namesakes predating the Confederacy who fought to keep slavery intact? What about the name of the city itself?
“I’ve heard people say, ‘What about Stephen F. Austin?’” Council Member Leslie Pool said. “I haven’t fully formed my thinking on this, but it is symbolic. … This is a conversation for our community, and if they tell us that we haven’t gone far enough or we’ve gone too far, they need to set those standards.”
Austin, the man, was instrumental in ensuring Central Texas remained a slave region, said Greg Cantrell, Texas Christian University’s history chair, who wrote a biography of Austin. Known as the Father of Texas, he was key to keeping the state government of Coahuila, which then included Texas, from abolishing slavery in the 1820s and later fought to make sure that if Texas joined the United States its slave-owning status would be protected.
But Austin, who died before the Civil War began, never fought against the United States.
Council Member Greg Casar — one of the first council members to sign onto the effort to rename Robert E. Lee Road — said his aim isn’t to erase the accomplishments of slave-owners in history, but to push back against a revisionist history that saw monuments to Confederate generals erected in response to civil rights advances.
“Stephen. F. Austin has those issues,” Casar said. “He is famous for reasons other than defending the institution of slavery and leading a war that led to a million plus people dying to defend the institution of slavery.”
Echoes of the Confederacy
Most Confederate monuments and markers were established during two bursts — one from the 1890s into the 1920s, when “separate but equal” laws were established, and again in the 1950s and 1960s as civil rights advances eroded those laws. Their real motivation, Cantrell said, was often to reassert white supremacy.
If preserving American history is the issue, Casar said, “where are the dozens and dozens of statues and monuments to King George?”
The state Capitol includes, among other markers, a large monument honoring Confederate soldiers who “died for states rights guaranteed under the Constitution,” and a Children of the Confederacy plaque, dedicated in 1959, which refers to “teaching the truths of history,” including that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery.
It’s the plaque that has drawn the ire of Rep. Johnson, who asked the State Preservation Board on Wednesday to remove it. Straus responded with a statement that he would like the board to “review the accuracy of signs and monuments around the Capitol.” But Johnson argued that a similar effort in 2015 went nowhere.
“Just a history book and a crowbar” is needed, Johnson said in a news release Friday.
Gov. Greg Abbott opposed removing Confederate monuments, saying that it “won’t erase our nation’s past and it doesn’t advance our nation’s future.”
The University of Texas began a monument in the early 1920s meant to symbolize post-war reconciliation with six statues placed around a fountain. But that message became somewhat lost when university leadership instead placed the statues around the university mall, away from one another.
In 2015, the university removed statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Four others remain: Lee; Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston; John H. Reagan, postmaster general of the Confederate states; and James Stephen Hogg, first native-born governor of Texas and son of a Confederate general.
The Davis statue was removed in response to a recommendation from Student Government and an advisory committee — the other four were allowed to remain because UT President Gregory L. Fenves found that they had deeper ties to Texas than did Davis. (Wilson’s statue, which stood across from Davis’, was moved to maintain symmetry.)
When asked by an American-Statesman reporter last week whether he would again review the statues of Confederate leaders on the South Mall, Fenves answered with a statement: “As we watch national events closely in the aftermath of Charlottesville, I am speaking with students, faculty, alumni and others about their concerns, especially on issues for our campus. I am listening to members of our community to evaluate how we move forward to best serve the university.”
In Williamson County, former Democratic Party Chairman Greg Windham asked county commissioners Tuesday to remove a 21-foot Confederate statue outside the courthouse in Georgetown “before something like that puts us on the national news.” Commissioner Terry Cook said she was open to the debate and has heard from several people about the statue.
Bastrop County formed a committee in 2015 to explore moving a 1910 Confederate obelisk to a museum. But County Judge Paul Pape said last week that 90 percent of the feedback he has received about the memorial is to leave it in place, and that there has been no renewed call for its removal since the incident in Charlottesville.
The roads ahead
On Wednesday evening, red spray paint across the Robert E. Lee Road street signs was the only sign of strife in the area. Residents said they didn’t remember other such recent vandalism. But some called renaming the street an overreaction.
“People get up in arms about the littlest things — they feel like it’s their sworn duty to see that something from the past is erased due to mistakes,” said Marissa Gonzales, 30. “It’s just a street sign.”
Others said they’d welcome the change.
“We’ve never been super proud to live on this street,” said Emily Henderson, 24, suggesting the city name it “something not political. Maple Street?”
“It doesn’t bother me at all to change my address,” said Joel Willard, 43. “They could name it for one of the people the cops shot this year.”
Robert E. Lee Road, once called River Road, was closed in the 1920s and landowners had argued to keep it closed due to its reputation as a haven for “necking parties.” It reopened in 1940 bearing the name Robert E. Lee Road, reportedly because Lee traveled that path to open frontier forts, but there’s no evidence proving whether that’s true or urban legend.
Jeff Davis Avenue was first found listed in city directories in 1929, said Mike Miller, managing archivist of the Austin History Center. Though it’s presumed to be named for Confederate President Jefferson Davis, there are no records concerning its naming.
Pool is pitching the idea of renaming Jeff Davis Avenue for abolitionist Sojourner Truth and Robert E. Lee Road for William DeWayne Jones, a park police officer shot and killed near Zilker Park in 2000. But she expects the public to bring other ideas.
“We’re going to have a very interesting community conversation about naming and what’s appropriate,” she said. “I expect we’ll have some funny names and references to ‘Game of Thrones.’”
Editor’s note: This story has been edited to correct a reporting error in Texas House Speaker Joe Straus’ remarks.