Here Are Arguments For And Against Changing Confederate Names Of Austin Schools

Feb 26, 2018

The Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees will vote tonight on whether to change the names of five district facilities named after people who served in the Confederate military or government.

It’s a conversation that began in November, when the district asked the board to consider changing the names of the following buildings:

  • Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston Campus (formerly Albert Sidney Johnston High School)
  • Sidney Lanier High School
  • John H. Reagan High School
  • Zachary Taylor Fulmore Middle School
  • The Allan Facility (formerly Allan Elementary)

Since then, board members have discussed whether to go forward with the name changes. The public has given input during board meetings and during two community meetings hosted by the district last week.

The board has voted to change the name of a school before. In 2015, members of the Robert E. Lee Elementary community made the request. The school is now called Russell Lee.  

At the beginning of the current discussion, board members questioned whether they should pursue name changes if the communities weren’t asking for them. A few board members also thought the process was happening too quickly and questioned whether the district had set aside enough time to hear from the public.

But the board moved forward and will vote tonight. Here are some of the arguments that have emerged in the last few months for and against the name changes.

Schools shouldn’t honor white supremacy

A principal reason people said they want the names changed is because the buildings honor people who condoned and participated in slavery.

Nancy Mims, an AISD parent and co-chair of the East Austin Coalition for Quality Education School Renaming Work Group, testified at a Jan. 22 meeting, saying she was “heartened to hear” of the board’s decision to consider renaming the facilities and that keeping the names would “stand for the perpetuation and multiplication of white supremacy.”

“I was heartened to hear, two months ago, that you had at last started the formal process to change those remaining names. That you had created a protocol and a timeline and were choosing to lead the community to do what other cities and school districts have been doing across the country. As a meaningful gesture that we would also be working toward recognizing and removing symbols that, while remaining on the schools, stand for the perpetuation and multiplication of white supremacy.”

Why these schools and not others?

People both for and against the name changes brought up a concern that these five schools aren't the only ones named after figures with connections to slavery.

For example, Stephen F. Austin, the namesake of, of course, Austin and Austin High, was a proponent of keeping slavery so Texas could be economically competitive. James Bowie, the namesake of Bowie High School, participated in the slave trade.

Trustee Yasmin Wagner brought up this point during the board’s Jan. 8 work session. While there has been a focus on Confederate-themed mascots like the Rebels of Travis High School, she said, the district hasn’t discussed Austin High’s mascot, the Maroons, which has racially insensitive etymology.

“Where I’m still troubled with this process is that it feels incomplete and somewhat arbitrary at this point. Because I can point to things like we’ve had conversations about the Rebel mascot but we haven’t had conversations about the Maroon mascot. And, so, that seems, you know, particularly lacking in terms of having a comprehensive conversation and really looking at all of our school names.”

It will cost too much money

The board, teachers and community members have all raised the issue of cost. The district estimates it would cost $77,000 per high school, for example, to replace all signs, stationary, uniforms and anything else with its name on it. Members of these communities say the schools could use that money for academics or facility needs.

Changing the names will erase personal history

Some alumni, like Eduardo Vaca-Amaya, say changing the names would mean a school’s history could be forgotten. Vaca-Amaya, who graduated from Lanier High School in 2007 and now works there as a special education teaching assistant, says the school has improved in the past decade. He said he worries if the name changes, future alumni won’t have that personal history to point to.

“You’re trying to change the name. You’re erasing my history that I have there. If we could go 10 years from now, and you’re trying to change the name, people will never know where Lanier High School was. For me, it's on a personal level. Because now that I work there and came back, I see that Lanier High School has grown as a great community.”

It won't do anything to change that history

The most complex debate in the conversation centers around how students learn the history of these namesakes. Some teachers have said removing these school names erases history in a way. They said it’s important to keep the names so they can be used as teaching tools.

Trustee Ted Gordon, who is also a University of Texas professor, echoed this. He said he was against UT removing the Confederate statues on campus because the statues could serve to remind people of the city's past. He said he feels the same way in this situation: Keeping the names could guide teachers in helping students understand this hard history. But, he said, that hasn’t been part of the conversation, so he supports the name changes.

“Here in AISD, we haven’t been able to deal with these issues at all. In fact, I’m for taking the names off the schools, because we can’t seem to have that kind of conversation. We’re arguing about whether these are symbols of pride, or not. I understand that this is emotional, but this is a real history, full of real pain and injustice. And, if we can’t even have the kind of conversation necessary to recognize that and then decide what we’re going to do about it. Then, I think, well, the only thing to do is take them down and try to get over it all.”

At a Jan. 22 board meeting, community member Chelsi Oheuri said she’d like to see the names changed, but only if it's the first step in addressing racial inequities in the schools.

“When we’re thinking about dismantling racism and dismantling white supremacy, it doesn’t stop with the name-change. So, I would want to encourage the board to think about ways that the schools can be renamed, yes. But also continue to address racial disparities and inequity that are present within AISD and within the City of Austin.”