Austin’s Robert E. Lee Elementary school has a new name: Russell Lee. The Austin School Board voted 8-1 to change the name Monday night. But for some school board members, the decision wasn't an easy one.
The school board had three name options from which to choose: Russell Lee, a photographer from the school’s neighborhood who started UT’s photography program; Bettie Mann, a former teacher at the school for nearly 40 years; and Wheeler’s Grove, a nearby park where African Americans used to gather to celebrate the emancipation of slaves.
The board approved Russell Lee at the request of the school’s Campus Advisory Council, said school board Trustee Amber Elenz:
“This name change is really only happening because the school asked us to make it happen. Decision among name changes has come solely through hard work, long hours and dedication from the school’s Campus Advisory Council.”
The advisory council asked the board to change the name from Robert E. Lee Elementary after a racially motivated mass shooting in a Charleston, South Carolina church prompted a national conversation about Confederate symbols. Robert E. Lee commanded the Confederate army during the U.S. Civil War. The school community recommended the district change the name to Russell Lee, and board members said they should honor the school’s decision. But some, like Trustee Ted Gordon, said the new name brought up some issues of its own.
“It seems to me that the name Russell Lee was chosen precisely because it’s reminiscent of the previous name," Gordon said. "And, 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.”
Trustee Paul Saldaña voted against the name change.
“Eighty-six facilities of AISD are named after individuals. Seventy-eight of 86 school names are named for white individuals. Twelve out of the 86 are named for African Americans, 12 out of 86 for Hispanics and zero are named for Asian Americans.”
Russell Lee was white. But, Saldaña said, in a school district where the majority of students are students of color, the board should consider increasing the diversity of school names.
“When I think about a teachable moment we have, for me there is nobody who influences the young mind of an individual more than a teacher,” he said.
The board ultimately voted to name the school’s kindergarten wing after Bettie Mann, who was also the school’s first African American teacher.