Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A report about city-owned streets named after the Confederacy has sparked a broader (and misleading) conversation about Austin’s history.
Austin, the liberal-leaning capital of Texas and live music, passed a resolution last fall to rethink, remove, or rename its monuments and memorials honoring the Confederacy. The move came late in a year in which Baltimore, Memphis, New Orleans, and other cities with roots below the Mason-Dixon Line reevaluated their Confederate heritage, in some cases by sending Rebel statues tumbling.
On Friday, Austin’s Equity Office answered its City Council’s October resolution with a report. For just shy of $6,000, the city of Austin could resolve some of its most egregious markers of the Confederacy simply by renaming several streets—hardly a huge lift for the city, which has already booted Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee from local signage.
The Equity Office report went further, however, with a secondary list of problematic assets and associations around town. One item on this accounting was unavoidable: The guy the city was named after. That’s Stephen F. Austin, a pioneer and slave owner who opened the first Anglo settlement in what would become Texas in 1821.
That’s it. The report did not recommend that the city change its name, full stop. It didn’t suggest renaming the Austin Convention Center, either. The Equity Office didn’t issue any suggestion about Austin at all. It simply did not omit the fact that the state’s founding father owned slaves and scuffled with Mexico to keep slavery legal for Texian settlers.
“That second list was provided really more for context, to say, look, depending on what your desire is and how far you want to go with this, here are a variety of other things in the city that are associated with slavery, racism, or systematic oppression,” says David Green, media relations manager for the city of Austin. “However, there’s no recommendations made around those.”
But that single line item from the report blazed a path to national headlines faster than Sherman’s March to the Sea. “Austin considers renaming city over ties to slavery,” reads the New York Post headline. “On Austin’s official list of racist symbols it might remove: The city’s name,” offered The Washington Post. Even the writeup in The Dallas Morning News made it sound as if social justice warriors had breached City Hall. “Would it keep Austin weird to call the city something else?”
It’s fitting, in a sense. A screaming narrative about liberal arts-professor types rewriting history fits Austin’s profile as progressive-but-unserious: It’s excessive, outrageous, and “weird.” All the national pearl-clutching over the mere idea points to a deep-seated discomfort with doing any real work to reverse the nation’s legacy of racial injustice, even if that work is symbolic—or just acknowledging history. In this case, it’s also a giant misread.
In short, Austin is not about to change its name. But if Austin were to just think about changing its name, that would be in keeping with the very practice that gave the city so many Confederate markers in the first place. Those didn’t pop up during the Civil War, after all, or even in the immediate decades after. According to a recent study, more than 1,400 streets nationwide commemorate Confederate leaders, and many were so named during the Jim Crow era to consolidate white dominance and intimidate black folks. Austin should talk about Austin, if only to highlight this original revisionist impulse to keep Austin segregated.
As part of its mandate from the council, Austin’s Equity Office identified seven streets for renaming: Littlefield Street, Tom Green Street, Sneed Cove, Dixie Drive, Confederate Avenue, Plantation Road, and Reagan Hill Drive (named for the Confederate postmaster general, John H. Reagan). Getting some new signs for these roads—plus pulling up a couple of historical markers that “incorporate the Confederate States of America in the marking title,” the report says—wouldn’t cost the city much. It’s a modest gesture aligned with the decision by the University of Texas at Austin to remove three Confederate statues in 2017.
And there’s already a system in place for retitling problematic stuff in Austin. Robert E. Lee Road is now Azie Morton Road, named after the country’s first black Treasurer of the United States, who went to school in Austin. Jeff Davis Drive is today William Holland Drive, named for a slave who joined the Union Army and went on to serve on the Travis County Commissioners Court. With regard to a handful of schools dubbed for Confederate officers and generals, the local school district’s Task Force for Renaming Schools is doing exactly that.
The secondary report, which tabulates all the questionable assets considered a lower priority, numbers two dozen streets. Bouldin Avenue, Pease Road, Hancock Drive, and others are named for slave owners. Waller Street’s namesake, Edwin Waller, was Austin’s first mayor, the city’s first planner, and the owner of 17 slaves. There are at least 10 roads named after slave-owner and Indian-fighter William Barton (plus Barton Springs, the site of the city’s beloved spring-fed outdoor pool). Burleson Road honors one Edward Burleson, the Texian Army commander to whom Santa Anna surrendered his sword—and, according to the report, a man “commonly known for killing more Mexicans and Indians than any other Texan.”
While some of these characters played major roles in local history, others were pointedly used for other reasons. “A lot of this stuff was named in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, specifically to be an intimidation tactic,” Green says. “A lot of the schools were named [for Confederates] in predominantly African American neighborhoods, for example, to hurt people.”
For the descendants of slaves, monuments to the Confederacy still send the same message: an official, low-key civic reminder that Lost Cause nostalgia is part of the fabric of the city. The point of some of these markers was to make Austin inhospitable. That is also part of the city’s history.
“Having been unable or unwilling to capitalize on modes of industrial growth during much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, city leaders struggled to make Austin a distinctive place worthy of drawing in more settlers,” writes Maggie Tate in Invisible in Austin. “Part and parcel of selling Austin as a pleasant place to live was the implementation of racial segregation both in jobs and in neighborhoods.”
Removing all civic evidence of every Confederate or slave-holding name on the list would make Austin pretty tricky to navigate. But the city couldn’t rename some of these streets if it wanted to. Some of these arteries, like Lamar Boulevard, are locally operated state roads. (The report indicates otherwise; Austin’s chief equity officer, Brion Oaks, did not respond to a request for comment.) Not only does the report not issue any recommendation about what to do with these streets, it forthrightly acknowledges the drawbacks of renaming them—from the “threat on preservation” to unnecessary costs to the potential drag on local businesses. What’s Bouldin Creek Cafe supposed to do if the city renames the entire Bouldin Creek neighborhood?
But there are also potential costs associated with ignoring the underlying history. Austin was the only major U.S. city over the last decade that enjoyed double-digit population growth even as its African American population declined. Moreover, among cities that experienced a decline in their black population, Austin’s was by far the most severe: a 20.4 percent nosedive, compared with the second steepest decline, San Diego’s 6.9 percent. That’s not because Austin’s called “Austin” and not “Waterloo.” But it’s worth asking why.
Howls of outrage over change are predictable. That’s especially true of a place that considers any resident who moved to town after the Armadillo World Headquarters closed in 1980 to be a tourist. Austin’s Equity Office gets why people might get upset about renaming the city—even if no one is actually talking about renaming the city. If it’s a gateway to discussing structural inequalities, though, maybe people should.