Rename Austin? Not Likely.
City name not going anywhere anytime soon
No, Austin isn't changing its name.
Even though the New York Post informed its readers that "Austin considers renaming city over ties to slavery," and Newsweek wrote "Austin Considering Renaming City to Depart from Confederate History," and the UK's Daily Mail went with "Austin considers renaming the city" ... contrary to the headlines, this city isn't getting a name change – or even considering one right now.
So what's the real story? City Council passed a resolution in October tasking the city's Equity Office with identifying city-owned Confederate monuments and memorials and how to remove, replace, or rename them. The city has made progress: In April, Council voted to rename Robert E. Lee Road to honor Azie Morton, the first African-American U.S. treasurer, and scrap Jeff Davis Avenue for Will Holland, a former Travis County commissioner who was once a slave. The office partnered with other groups including archivists with the Austin History Center and spent months reviewing other markers around town.
Last Thursday the office released the full set of its findings, which include two lists – high-priority, immediate recommendations for Council; and a lower-priority list with no direct recommendations, requiring "more analysis." That second list includes markers that were not "explicitly Confederate and/or Civil War related but were within the spirit of the resolution representing segregation, racism, and/or slavery." The renaming of Austin is tucked away on that lower-priority list and is joined by renaming Stephen F. Austin Drive and the Austin Recreation Center. Austin fought to defend slavery in spite of Mexico's effort to ban the practice, and believed slave labor to be "indispensable" for Texas' economy. He also believed that if slaves were emancipated they would turn into "vagabonds, a nuisance and a menace."
Brion Oaks, the city's chief equity officer, calls the second list more of an "awareness piece .... Everyone is saying we're trying to change Austin's name, but that's not the case – we are responding to a request from Council, who asked us to do this research and provide this data," he told me. "At the end of the day, any name change has to come from Council action and at this point in time, Council has not made any decision." (There is also no timeline for Council to make any decision.)
Seven street names showed up on the high-priority list: Littlefield Street; Tom Green Street; Sneed Cove; Reagan Hill Drive; Dixie Drive; Plantation Road; and Confederate Avenue. The renamings are anticipated to cost about $6,000 and the new monikers should fall to the council member who represents the district containing the street, the report suggests. Four historical markers also made the immediate action list, including Confederate leader Jefferson Davis' marker on South Congress; these require approval from the Travis County Historical Commission and Texas Historical Commission.
The second, lengthier list includes some of the city's most high-profile place names: Barton Springs, Pease Park, Bouldin Creek, Waller Creek, Duval Street, Burnet Road, Lamar Boulevard, and Hancock Drive. (The scope encompassed only city-owned property, so Confederate memorials at the Capitol, UT, federally protected buildings, and schools weren't included.)
Oaks said the office has faced some negative backlash, especially complaints that the city would be trying to "erase or change" history (a common refrain among the bigoted or ignorant when Confederate markers are renamed). Oaks' office – composed of a racially diverse staff – has been accused of being communists or ultra-liberals, and have been told to "go back" where they came from. But Oaks sees the report as an important task, and one that helps grant those previously shut out of decision-making a chance to be part of the dialogue.
"It is essential to acknowledge that societal values are fluid, and they can be and are different today compared to when our city made decisions to name and/or place these Confederate symbols in our community," he wrote in the memo. "It is also important to acknowledge that nearly all monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders were erected without a true democratic process. People of color often had no voice and no opportunity to raise concerns about the city's decision to honor Confederate leaders."