Another historical Confederate figure fell to political correctness, this time, for the first time, at a public school in the Texas state capital.
On Monday, May 23, Austin Independent School District board of trustees voted 8-0, with one abstention, to rename the elementary school named for Gen. Robert E. Lee to Russell Lee Elementary.
This “Lee” is the acclaimed Depression Era social-documentarian who founded the UT-Austin photography program. He is best known for his U.S. Farm Security Administration images captured between 1936 and 1943. The university’s Briscoe Center for American History houses his extensive photographic catalog.
In April, Breitbart Texas reported on the 15-page list of names from which Russell Lee was chosen. However, the name that topped the list was Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, real estate mogul and reality-TV star. The Campus Advisory Council (CAC), which oversaw the search for a new namesake, would not even consider Trump as a viable option, Austin’s KXAN (NBC) reported.
Russell Lee’s name actually came in third on that list, behind those in favor of keeping the school named after Robert E. Lee. The advisory council is made up of teachers, staff, parents and other members of the school community.
The photographer was not trustees’ first choice, either. Bettie Mann, the school’s first black teacher, was the sentimental favorite. Mann, 85, a CAC finalist, did not even appear on the April Top 10 list, although the Austin American-Statesman reported a community effort arose to rename the campus for the beloved educator. Another CAC pick was Wheeler’s Grove, the original name of Eastwoods Parks, the first Austin public space where the black community celebrated Emancipation Day, the freeing of the slaves, according to the Statesman. Even another “Lee,” the late author Harper Lee, made the CAC’s final list of eight candidates.
Previously, KXAN reported the CAC explained its list of finalists in a statement. It read: “What clearly emerged was that the most meaningful names must have local significance, must honor our history, and must reinforce our belief in diversity and education for all.”
Mann was present at Monday night’s board meeting. She told KXAN before the meeting she did not want to see the name Robert E. Lee change – until she became a finalist. Mann taught at the elementary school for 37 years. The school’s kindergarten wing will be named for her. A playground may be named to commemorate Wheeler’s Grove.
Trustee Ted Gordon shared that he worked at UT-Austin for 28 years, suggesting the “problem for me” with rebranding to Russell Lee was the name was chosen to retain the “Lee” name. He said, “It seems to me that the name Russell Lee was chosen precisely because it’s reminiscent of the previous name.”
He added, “In being reminiscent of the previous name, it is being chosen to protect the sensibilities of those who don’t care about the sensibilities [of those] who have been, in some sense, damaged or aggrieved by the Confederate name itself.”
Still, the board abided by CAC and community consensus that overwhelmingly desired keeping the name “Lee” as its moniker. Board member Amber Elenz said, “This name change is really only happening because the school asked us to make it happen.”
In January, an advisory panel estimated signage replacement costs at $14,000. Elementary school rebranding expenditures are significantly lower than high schools where sports related uniforms, equipment, booster and spirit wear drive up dollar amounts.
Robert E. Lee Elementary opened in 1939. It is one of five Austin ISD schools with a Confederate connected name. This marks the first public school in the Texas capital city of Austin to rebrand in response to last year’s horrific South Carolina hate-crime shootings, which left nine black church parishioners dead. The tragedy sparked a politicized movement to dump Old South symbology.
At the height of the nationwide crusade to remove all Confederate iconography, the University of Texas at Austin uprooted its main mall statue of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. It will instead become part of an educational exhibit at the Briscoe Center.
Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.