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Austin ISD Delays Decision To Rename Schools Named For Confederate Figures

Jorge Sanhueza Lyon
Sidney Lanier served in the Confederate States Army prior to his post-Civil War career as a poet and musician. The Austin Independent School District is weighing a decision to change the name of the high school that bears his name.

The Austin Independent School District’s board of trustees is slowing down its timeline for a vote on whether to change the names of five schools named after Confederate figures.

When the school board started this discussion in November, it proposed changing the names of the following buildings:

  • Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston Campus (formerly called Johnston High School)
  • Sidney Lanier High School
  • John H. Reagan High School 
  • Zachary Taylor Fulmore Middle School
  • The former Allan Elementary School (now an administrative building) 

Each was named after a man involved in the Confederacy. The board said these men didn't align with the district's current core values.
The discussion came about during a wave of anti-Confederate actions across the country, including at UT-Austin, where Confederate monuments were removed from campus.

The school district started talking with communities at these schools, and the board planned to vote in February on whether to make the name changes. But this month, board members expressed reservations.

Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT
A statue of John H. Reagan is removed from the UT-Austin campus on Aug. 21. Reagan was the postmaster general of the Confederacy.

Questions Over Criteria And Cost

At a work session Jan. 8, board members raised concerns about the process of choosing which schools to rename.

“It feels incomplete,” board member Yasmin Wagner said. “We’ve had conversations about the [Travis High] Rebel mascot, but we haven’t had any conversations about the [Austin High] Maroon mascot. That seems particularly lacking in terms of having a comprehensive conversation and really looking at all of our school names.”

Wagner said the board should take a hard look at all school names and mascots in the district, and come up with a clear strategy.

Board member Ann Teich echoed part of this sentiment, saying changing only the names of schools named after Confederate figures omits other problematic names.

“Stephen F. Austin condoned slavery,” she said, referring to the namesake for Austin High School. “So, if we are going to be fair and we are going to address the wrongs done to African-Americans in this country, which are numerous and egregious, then let’s don’t just do Lanier, let’s don’t just do Johnston, let’s don’t just do Reagan.”

The board also raised the issue of cost. The district estimates it would cost $77,000 to change the name of a high school. It would have to replace all signs, stationary, uniforms and anything else with the name on it. Teich said that might be hard to justify to taxpayers.

After the work session, the board decided to continue having the discussion, but not to make vote in February.

'A Symbolic Step'

Ted Gordon wasn’t at the work session, but he told a crowd at the Martin Luther King Jr. march last week that he was disappointed in his fellow board members for slowing down the timeline.

“They succumbed to the political and social tensions surrounding these symbols of a problematic past,” he said.

Gordon said that in a school district where black students fall behind academically, changing the names would be a symbol that the district is looking out for students of color.

“Changing the Confederate names of the schools in Austin [and] taking down the statues on the Capitol ground will not dismantle the afterlife of slavery,” he said. “However, it is the right thing to do. It will be a symbolic step toward recognizing that anti-black racism still exists and that we are willing to confront it.”

The History Of These Names

At the board meeting Monday, some Lanier alumni spoke up about their opposition to the name change.

“Never once did I hear in my four years at Lanier that Sidney Lanier was named after a Confederate soldier,” said Terry Ayers, who attended Lanier in the '60s. “We were taught that he was a famous poet, period."

Resident Chelsi Ohueri brought up a point about historical context.

Credit Lynda Gonzalez for KUT
Brian Hill, special projects lead for the superintendent at Austin ISD, says old board meeting minutes contain references to naming schools after Confederate figures.

“Just because you didn’t know why schools were being named, doesn’t mean that there wasn’t an agenda about the reason they were being named,” she said during public comment.

When Jim Crow was being dismantled and the federal government was forcing schools to desegregate, for example, the school board named Johnston and Lanier after Confederate soldiers. Board minutes at the time show that members mentioned Johnston’s service in the Civil War as reasons for choosing his name.

'Fruitless Without The Understanding Of Why'

Within the halls of Lanier, the conversation sounds different. Some members of the community take issue with a potential name change, but not because of nostalgia or cost. They say choosing Lanier is another example of how the school doesn’t receive equal treatment and take issue with Austin High School not being on the list.

In the bond voters passed in November, Lanier was allocated the second to least amount of money among Austin high schools. This prompted student Victoria Warner to speak out.

“Health and safety of the students is a core value,” she told the board at Monday’s meeting. “Well why isn’t the money [being used] to fix power outages? Because the first day of school there was no power and about two months ago we didn’t have any power again.”

Lanier Principal Ryan Hopkins said just changing a name is not enough.

“Changing a name is pretty fruitless without the understanding of why," he said, "and then where do we move forward with that?"

That’s the reason Lanier business teacher Medina Willis says she doesn’t want to see the name changed. She said that would erase history and not remind future generations that pro-slavery sentiment existed in Austin.

“Please stop using AISD’s core values and policy to paint a one-sided picture as to why school names should be changed,” she said at the board meeting. “This is infuriating, because this is also how slave owners used quotes from the Bible to justify how they treated and manipulated their slaves.”

Willis said she’s been using this conversation as an opportunity in her classroom to talk about racial inequities in the city and school. She said changing a school name doesn’t create change. To create actual change for students and staff of color, there needs to be conversations between people of different backgrounds so they can learn from each other.

Hopkins said rather than focusing on a name change, the board should focus on that.

“The board has its work cut out for it,” he said. “While it’s hard work, it’s the real work."

Correction: The audio and a previous print version of this story incorrectly stated that minutes from a school board meeting show members mentioning Lanier's Confederate service as a reason to name the school after him.

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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