Public Notice: In the Name of Fairness
Times change, and so do schools
It was high drama at the AISD board meeting Monday evening, climaxing with Trustee Ann Teich storming off the dais in protest after the board approved a resolution to change the names of four schools named for Confederate soldiers. Teich has opposed the name changes vociferously, but lost the vote, 7-2, then was ruled out of order when she tried to introduce a separate motion (not on the agenda) to also rename Stephen F. Austin and James Bowie high schools, because "it's only fair" to renounce slave-holders along with Confederates.
I fully understand her misgivings over the name changes. I don't think Robert E. Lee was a bad guy, and I don't think it's bad to expose kids to the moral dilemmas that the Civil War created, and the idea that our heroes have flaws, and might even be considered villains in someone else's eyes. And I'd agree with Teich that this move is largely an issue of political correctness, and that making a feel-good symbolic gesture isn't going to do squat to address the issues of inequity that plague the district, and the educational system in general.
But on the other hand, it's silly to pretend that symbolic gestures don't carry any weight. If symbols didn't matter, Trustee Teich wouldn't have felt so strongly about this one.
Albert Sidney Johnston, John H. Reagan, and Sidney Lanier high schools were the only high schools built in Austin in the period between the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, and the 1968 Civil Rights Act – the period roughly coinciding with the "Third Klan" revival across the South, the last stand for Jim Crow laws, and the shockingly violent fight for desegregation all across the nation. It was a fight that was rooted in school desegregation, and in many places, schools and universities were where segregationists made their last stand. Austin was spared the worst of that, but it doesn't take much reading between the lines to know that there was a message involved in the naming of those schools – and how much you might take those names for granted, is a good indicator of how much you may have experienced segregation yourself.
All three of those schools are located east of Austin's geographic center, and all three were named after Confederate veterans, who had no particular connection to Austin. We can debate whether they were patriots or traitors – or some of each – and certainly the circumstances were very different for each man. But it's not about those men, at this point. Truly, they were all heroes in their own lights, in their time. And the values they represented will not be forgotten, and the nuances of meaning in each man's story will likely be teased out in the renaming discussions which will now ensue. But times move on, and however you want to spin or interpret the message that city leaders were making when they named those schools 50-60 years ago, it's not hard to conclude that this is a good time in history for our school board to take action to make a different statement.
The third annual [Re]Verse Pitch Competition is a very cool event that this year will award two prizes totaling $20,000 to local entrepreneurs who sign on to create products or services using waste material from existing Austin businesses. Looking at the list of available materials, it appears the most desirable are the distiller's spent grain from Still Austin Whiskey Co., and the oyster shells from Quality Seafood, which could be used for anything from soil additives to math teaching aids. Fabric scraps, wine bottles, and vinyl record defects all have suitors as well; sadly, no one wanted UT's pressboard office furniture, or the denim pant tops and concrete anchor straps(?) on offer. Come see the final pitch event, 6:30-9pm, Wed., March 7 at Atlassian, 303 Colorado #1600, and read about the whole process at www.reversepitch.org.
B-cycle's University of Texas bikeshare program launched recently, providing free memberships for all UT-Austin students, and half off for faculty and staff; sign up at utbikeshare.com. They're also looking for volunteers to help manage the extra load during SXSW. Earn an annual membership, a free lunch, and a T-shirt.
North Lamar/Guadalupe Corridor Mobility Plan: The city is kicking off the process to study "mobility, safety and connectivity improvements" along this corridor, from Downtown up to U.S. 183. Come share your thoughts at this preliminary planning meeting, Thu., March 8, 5-8pm at McCallum High, 5600 Sunshine.
It's My Park Day: Lots of volunteer spots are still available at more than 100 parks projects all over the city, for this annual spring event, Sat., March 3. Choose from tree mulching, habitat restoration, trail maintenance, park and creek cleanups, and much more. For more info and to register, see www.austinparks.org.
Who They Were
A brief biographical sketch of the five Confederate soldiers whose names are to be removed from AISD facilities, starting with the three high schools opened in the Sixties.
Albert Sidney Johnston was a military man all his life, and considered the finest Confederate general before being killed early in the Civil War at the Battle of Shiloh. A classmate of Jeff Davis at West Point, he became head of the Texian army during the war for independence, then a U.S. general before resigning to join the Confederacy. His statue at UT was commissioned in 1919, shortly after D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation helped resurrect the Southern Ku Klux Klan, and Johnston High was christened in 1960, just as the "Third Klan" made its comeback across the South.
John H. Reagan resigned from the U.S. House to join the Confederacy as Postmaster General (a more important position in those days that it sounds like now). After the war, he was a famously moderating figure in Reconstruction, urging fellow Texans to accept the end of slavery, and voting rights for former slaves (if only out of fear of harsh federal reprisals). Yet later, he was blamed for developing much of the legal machinery of the Jim Crow era. He was also a founder of the Texas State Historical Association, and active in Confederate veteran affairs. Reagan High opened in 1965.
Sidney Clopton Lanier was 19 when the war broke out, enlisted and served as a private in the Confederate signal corps throughout. He was captured while piloting a blockade runner, and caught tuberculosis, of which he eventually died at the age of 39. He was a performing musician, a celebrated poet, an influential literary theorist, and a professor at Johns Hopkins. Over a dozen schools are named after him across the South; Austin's opened in 1966.
Zachary Taylor Fulmore was a 17-year-old high school student when he joined the Confederate army in the last few months of the war; afterward, he spent the last 53 years of his life in Austin, where he was County Judge, helped found the State School for Colored Blind and Deaf and the Austin public school system, and served 17 years on the school board. Clearly, as with Sidney Lanier, he was commemorated for achievements other than serving the Confederacy. Fulmore School (now Middle School) was originally founded in 1886, five years after AISD was founded.
John T. Allan is nicknamed the "Father of Industrial Education in Texas." Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1821, he was a justice of the peace in Austin for a decade before enlisting as a Confederate officer and district attorney in Louisiana. Back in Austin after the war, he was state treasurer and a board member of the School for the Deaf, among other things, and left his estate to the city for the express purpose of founding the first industrial training department in the South, in order to teach "the practical use of tools and scientific principles." Four years after that department opened at Austin High, a brand-new high school was named for Allan in 1900.