As cities around the country debate the removal of statues depicting members of the Confederacy, Austin City Council members have initiated their own street-level response: They have applied to officially rename Robert E. Lee Road in South Austin.
This isn’t the first time the street has been the subject of controversy at council. According to old Austin American-Statesman articles, the question of who could access the road, which was at one point a portion of a larger thoroughfare named the Robert E. Lee Highway, heated up city discussions.
Sometime in the spring of 1929, local property owners erected a fence across the road to block it from public use. Although it’s unclear whether he owned land on the street, Tom Butler argued in front of City Council that the street should remain private to stem, well, riffraff. According to the article, when the road was public it had been “desecrated by ‘necking parties.'"
“’It harbors characters who are not desirable, who raise disturbances and are a menace,’” Butler said, according to the Statesman article from April 1929. “’We have found liquor and narcotic needles there. Two barns, a house and grass have been set fire to, and nobody has been held accountable for it.’”
Prominent Austinite Andrew Jackson "A.J." Zilker repeatedly argued for the road to be reopened to the public because of its alleged historical value. As legend has it, the road traced a part of the journey Robert E. Lee, a member of the United States Army at the time, made with Albert Sidney Johnston in the 1850s. Both eventually served as leaders of the Confederate Army.
“’They camped at Barton Springs, then known as Spring creek,’” Zilker told council members. “’Gen. Lee’s letter describing the spot still is in the archives of the war department at Washington, put there during the administration of Thomas Jefferson.’”
According to a 1963 article in the Journal of Southern History, Lee went to Texas during the winter of 1855-1856 under an order from Congress to protect the “Indian frontier” in West Texas – or, as a Statesman article from August 1929 reads, “to protect the American settlers from Indian wanderers.”
Robert E. Lee Road, Zilker told council in 1929, “belongs to the people of Austin and nobody has the right to close it.’”
The fight over reopening the road dragged on for at least two years. According to a 1931 Statesman article, City Council considered whether the fight over Robert E. Lee Road required a lawsuit. Then-City Manager Adam Johnson argued that the city would have to go to court to force the road to reopen, and that the city did not have enough police officers to patrol the road, known for its use for “immoral purposes.”
The city’s failure to get the road reopened became a political rallying point:
“The action of the council in ordering the road reopened and its subsequent consent to postpone the opening has already been made a campaign issue in the present race for city council. Col. Zilker at the political meeting in South Austin Tuesday night criticised the council for its action in the matter.”
It’s unclear exactly when Robert E. Lee Road reopened to the public.