Confederate names on Austin schools date back to civil rights movement

Now that a neighborhood group has requested the renaming of Austin’s Robert E. Lee Elementary School, a school board committee will delve into how Lee Elementary came to be named after the Confederate hero – and, to an extent, confront the city’s not-so-distant history of institutional racism and segregation.

Lee Elementary, named in 1939, is located just outside the Hyde Park neighborhood, which was white-only at that time.

It was no coincidence that three other schools bearing the names of notable Confederates popped up in Austin during the civil rights movement, following the federal court-ordered desegregation of public schools.

Those local schools — Sidney Lanier High School, Albert Sidney Johnston High School and John H. Reagan High School — were built at a time when schools were being named after Confederate war heroes across Texas and the South. All three of the high schools are located in neighborhoods with large minority populations.

Some say the names were meant to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. Others saw the push to glorify the Confederacy as a deliberate slap in the face to minorities and the federal government after the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision Brown v. Board of Education.

“That was the symbolic resistance of the Southern state to the imposition of the federal civil rights legislation. Standing on state’s rights and standing on the Lost Cause principle, they went about honoring the Confederacy,” said Frank de la Teja, a Texas State University professor who was appointed Texas state historian between 2007 and 2009 by former Gov. Rick Perry. “And by the way, Austin was an extremely racist town.”

Scrutiny of the schools’ names has resurfaced in the wake of the Charleston, S.C., shooting last month that killed nine African-American churchgoers. Dylann Roof, who has been charged in the shooting, had been pictured posing with the Confederate battle flag and has been linked to a racist manifesto posted online, sparking a national backlash against Confederate iconography.

Jerry Patterson, former Texas land commissioner and a history buff who is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he’s seen no proof that the names of the Austin schools were a direct response to desegregation. He points out that the celebration of the centennial of the Civil War lasted for several years starting in the late 1950s, igniting a commemorative campaign from Confederate descendants in the form of battle re-enactments, public building names, statues and flying of the battle flag of the Confederacy.

“Before Texas grew so much, we were all related to Confederate veterans,” Patterson said. “You honored your military heroes. Wars were always commemorated. It was a war of great magnitude.”

Ted McKnight, a Lakeway resident who is also a member of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, doesn’t dispute that prejudice was likely the motivation for naming the schools after Confederates. But that doesn’t mean those schools should erase their names and the educational opportunities that come with them, he said.

“I still think that there’s an ability to learn and be guided through their education,” McKnight said. “They should all ask ‘why am I going to Lanier High School?’ Hopefully they will learn the good and bad about Lanier.”

In recent weeks, efforts to rethink Confederate school dedications in Austin have come from the local chapter of the NAACP and Friends of Hyde Park neighborhood association. This month, members of the neighborhood group overwhelmingly voted to support changing the name of Lee Elementary.

The school was named at the urging of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who made a request to the school board. Hyde Park had been a white-only neighborhood for decades. Ads from the time touted it as a place “free from nuisances and an objectionable class of people, proper restrictions being taken to guard against undesirable occupants.”

The Austin school board trustees, all of whom were white, didn’t have any meaningful discussion when they approved the names of the Confederate schools in the 1950s and 1960s, according to Austin school board meeting minutes and newspaper archives.

The desegregation of Austin’s schools was slow and reluctant. Though the Supreme Court ruled that districts should integrate “with all deliberate speed” in 1955, it was not until 1961 that the school board adopted integration policies for its elementary schools. Race riots erupted at two high schools in the early 1970s, leading to heavy police intervention. Finally, a lawsuit filed by Volma Overton — president of the NAACP Austin branch — and the U.S. Department of Justice led to a court-ordered busing program. A court found that the schools were desegregated in 1983.

Wilhelmina Delco, who later became the first African-American Austin school board trustee, remembers sending her children to Reagan High School, named for a Confederate postmaster, when it first opened in 1964. She says the name didn’t mean much to her or her kids; she just liked that her children could learn in new air-conditioned classrooms.

“I think it was all racially motivated subliminally, but I don’t know how openly people said, ‘This is a Confederate hero and we ought to name a school after him,’” Delco said.

Originally named Riverside High School, Johnston was named after the school’s future students in 1959 campaigned to have the school renamed after a “historical or educational figure” — much like the schools already in the district. A school board committee formed, which came back with a handful of suggestions, including Coronado, names of Texas Revolution and Confederate heroes and former President Andrew Jackson. Ultimately, Johnston — a Republic of Texas, Mexican War and Confederate officer — prevailed.

In 1990, several alumni and community members pushed to change the name, saying it sent a racist message to students.

“Who that school is named after is truly significant,” said Gary Bledsoe, an Austin attorney who was the local NAACP chapter president at that time.

Despite ending busing 16 years ago, the school district remains racially divided, with less than 40 percent minority students in some schools, and other schools where more than 90 percent of the students are of color.

The school board’s equity committee — tasked with determining whether all students in the district receive the same quality of education — will address the names of the elementary school and the three high schools in August.

“One way is to take names off and find more appropriate names that have more to do with our current vision and direction,” said Ted Gordon, a school board member who serves on the committee and is chairman of University of Texas’ department of African and African diaspora studies. “Another thing is to leave those names on, put them in context and talk about how the school district has departed from that perspective … and use them as a constant reminder that we come from a particular kind of path and that we need to continue to struggle to make a different kind of future.”

Gene Preuss, associate history professor at the University of Houston-Downtown who studies the history of Texas public schools, said debates over the history of racial strife in Texas, and periodic re-evaluations of public spaces and monuments named after Confederates, are bound to surface from time to time. People shouldn’t shy away from the exercise, he said.

“What we consider important may have changed, and I don’t think we’re changing our morality,” Preuss said. “Every once in a while, it’s good to look around and see who you’re swimming with. Monuments and markers and school names aren’t the only way that we commemorate the past.

“People won’t forget about them,” he said, whether schools are named after them or not.

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