Austin community members discuss renaming public school campuses named after Confederate leaders

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Shannon Cavanagh, UT sociology professor and parent of two children who attend Robert E. Lee Elementary School, speaks at a forum regarding the possible renaming of Austin ISD schools named after Confederate heroes on Thursday afternoon. A majority of the public testimonies were in support of renaming Lee Elementary and Reagan High School.

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

For the first time, members of the community discussed renaming four public school campuses at an Austin ISD committee meeting Thursday, and a majority of the public spoke in favor of the changes.

The AISD Board Oversight Committee on Excellence through Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion considered the possibility of renaming Robert E. Lee Elementary School, Lanier High School, John H. Reagan High School and Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston Campus — all of which were named after members of the Confederacy.

After a UT committee debated whether Confederate statues should remain on UT’s campus, president Gregory Fenves announced Aug. 13 that the University would relocate the repeatedly vandalized Jefferson Davis statue from the Main Mall to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. The conclusion to relocate the statue has influenced the push to rename the AISD campuses but is not the same as the impact of renaming a school, Susan Moffat, a former Lee Elementary PTA officer, said.

“An elementary school is different than a statue that adults may walk by occasionally — this building has a huge place in our [children’s] lives,” Moffat said.

Public schools should honor those who exemplify community values and serve as role models, Moffat said, and she supports renaming Lee Elementary.

Moffat said people have questioned Lee Elementary’s name for many years, but recent national events — such as the recent Charleston church shooting, committed by a man who had published a racist manifesto online, and the Black Lives Matter movement, which started in 2012 after Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, Florida — have reinforced people’s belief that the school’s name does not support AISD’s values.

Shannon Cavanagh, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and parent of two children attending Lee Elementary, said renaming Lee Elementary will help advance important conversations about inclusion and the commitment to undoing structural racism.

“Changing the name of Lee or the high schools is not going to change the racial dynamic or racial inequality that exists in Austin and in Texas and in the United States; however, it’s an important symbol that can begin to change the conversation and force the conversation about the role of certain persistent inequality and how that’s shaping the educational experience of our children,” Cavanagh said.

Eva Morlock, an opponent to renaming Lee Elementary, said while Robert E. Lee did inherit slaves, he freed them before the start of the Civil War, so the school’s name should remain in his honor.

“[My friends and I] think that [the name] has been good for 75 years,” Morlock said. “We have had many students come from that school who have gone on to do good things.”

Edmund T. Gordon, board trustee of the AISD Board Oversight Committee, said if the committee waits too long to act, then the community may be less likely to engage in the process of renaming the schools.

“People in this community have been insulted and denigrated by these names for 75 years — it’s time enough,” Gordon said.

While a majority of the testimonies were in support of renaming Lee Elementary and Reagan High School, no one at the meeting voiced an opinion about changing the names of Lanier High School or Eastside Memorial at the Johnston Campus.

The committee said it will continue to engage with the community and will recommend the AISD Board of Trustees look at the issue on Sept. 9 before making any renaming decisions.