Feb 25, 2018

Austin School Board Begins Process of Changing Confederate Names of 5 Campuses

Reporting Texas

Austin Independent School District is debating changing the name of five local schools due to their Confederate ties, including John H. Reagan High School. Andrea Garcia/Reporting Texas

Update: Austin public school trustees voted  7-2 during their Feb. 26 meeting to begin the process of changing the Confederate names of five the area campuses, 

Austin public school trustees will resume their debate Monday over whether to strip five campuses of names commemorating Confederate officials and veterans of the Civil War.

The campuses are Zachary T. Fulmore Middle School, Sidney Lanier High School, John H. Reagan High School, the Albert Sidney Johnston campus of Eastside Memorial High School, and the former John T. Allan elementary school, which now houses the district’s Parent Engagement Support Office.

The debate is part of a national discussion that began after an admitted white supremacist shot to death nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015. Controversies erupted nationwide over flags, monuments and other memorials of the Confederacy.

Ten weeks after the Charleston shootings, the University of Texas at Austin removed a statue of Jefferson Davis from the Main Mall. In November 2015, the Austin Independent School District board began debating the names of its campuses with Confederate ties, and in 2016 the board changed the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary to Russell Lee in honor of a renowned Depression-era photographer.

Last fall, after school board member Edmund T. Gordon asked that the board again consider changing the Confederate names, district administrator Brian Hill presented research indicating that the five school names recognized their namesakes’ accomplishments after the Civil War, with one exception. Albert Sidney Johnston was a Confederate general who died in battle. The others had distinguished careers in the arts, government or business before and after the Civil War, Hill said.

John H. Reagan served the Confederacy as postmaster. As hostilities wound down in the Civil War, the Union captured Reagan and imprisoned him in New England. While incarcerated, he sent word back to Texas that it should submit to the Union, free the slaves and give them the right to vote. After rejoining the Union, Texas elected Reagan first to the U. S. House of Representatives, then to the U. S. Senate. He later served as chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas, from 1897 to 1903, and died in 1905.

What’s the case for taking Reagan’s name off the school? For leaving it as is? Reporting Texas asked people who are passionate about the issue to explain their positions.

— Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP: change the school’s name.

“This is the time to send a message renouncing white supremacy,” Linder said. “There are many individuals in history who exemplify this.” He said Reagan’s plea to Texas to submit to the Union and free slaves “doesn’t redeem his position in the Confederacy.”

— Cassie Zelaya, president of the Reagan Band Boosters, parent of two current Reagan students and mentor to the school’s Soul Raiders Show Band members for 10 years: keep the name.

“I don’t care about what happened 150 years ago, or even 50 years ago,” Zelaya said. “I care about what we have done in the last 10 years to make a name for the Reagan band.” Zelaya has supported the band as it competed in contests around the region, from Austin to Houston and even in Louisiana. The band routinely brings home trophies.

—Charlsa Bentley, Reagan Class of 1968 and active school booster for the past decade: keep the name.

Bentley worries that the academic progress the school has achieved in the past decade, after it was almost closed down for poor performance, and future momentum will be lost if the name changes. It would send a message to everyone who worked to make Reagan what it is today that their achievements do not matter, she said.

—Rick Krivoniak, Reagan Class of 1972, a semi-retired architect: change the name.

“It was a great school,” Krivoniak said. “But times change.” He believes the choice of Reagan’s name during the 1960s was an affront to the Civil Rights movement. “I can’t imagine what it could be like for African-American students to study in a school with a Confederate name.” he said.

The school board will take up the issue at 7 p.m. Monday at the Carruth Administration Center, 1111 W. Sixth St. People who wish to speak at the meeting should sign up by phone or in person before 4:45 p.m. After 4:45 p.m., sign-up is only in person.