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AISD Trustees favor new Lee for Lee Elementary

Tuesday, May 10, 2016 by Courtney Griffin

After a near-yearlong process, Austin Independent School District trustees heard three final choices for the renaming of Robert E. Lee Elementary school at their Monday workshop meeting.

Although not set to formally vote until May 23, board members reached a verbal consensus in a relatively short time, setting their sights on replacing “Robert E. Lee” with “Russell Lee” for the historic elementary school in Hyde Park.

Ryan Bates, a parent at Lee Elementary and co-chair of its Community Advisory Committee (CAC), reviewed the committee’s vetting process with trustees. CAC members chose three names — Russell Lee, Bettie Mann and Wheeler’s Grove — out of more than 500 “good, bad and ugly” options that were submitted online or through the mail before April 15th.

These nominations ran the gamut in terms of variety, Bates noted. New suggestions included Donald J. Trump Elementary, Harper Lee Elementary, Elisabeth Ney Elementary and Adolf Hitler School for Friendship and Tolerance, but members managed to narrow the options to eight before gathering more input from parents and teachers, he said.

“We specifically made a substantial effort to reach out and understand the views of the teachers,” Bates said. “What I think I’d really like the board to know is these are the (names) that best represent a variety of (AISD’s) principles.”

Bates added that parents and teachers significantly preferred the Russell Lee Elementary choice over the other two naming options. Russell Lee, a former Hyde Park resident* and nationally famous photographer, is best known for his work with the Farm Security Administration. There, he documented poor and working people of all races and ethnicities in Texas and many other states while also becoming the first professor of photography at the University of Texas at Austin.

Laurie Marchant, a parent at Lee who presented the case for Russell Lee Elementary School to trustees Monday, said parents and teachers liked the idea of the continuity between the two names, having simply called the school “Lee Elementary” for years now.

But, she added, “Naming it Russell Lee kind of turns it into a more positive way to look at the name of the school.” It also gives teachers a wealth of public artwork to refer back to or plan lessons around, she said.

The other two options, Bettie Mann and Wheeler’s Grove, were admittedly favored by some board members. But, trustees said that they did not wish to go against District 5 residents, who had clearly made their wishes known.

“One of the things I think about when I think about Lee is the history of the area,” said District 1 Trustee Edmund Gordon. “In this community, I think in particularly about the ways in which the African-American community has been shuffled around, and continue to be shuffled around … but to exact that on one particular school and in this particular circumstance would be too much. So, any one of the names would be OK — more than OK.”

Gordon and others paid homage to the sources of the two remaining choices, one a longtime teacher and the other a long-forgotten place. Bettie Mann was the first African-American teacher at Lee Elementary, and her sons were its first African-American students in the 1960s, when Austin schools were beginning to integrate. Mann began her career in 1968 as a substitute, but she went on to teach for AISD for 37 years and is well-remembered in the community.

The third-ranked choice, Wheeler’s Grove, was the site of Austin’s first Juneteenth celebrations and a well-known public gathering place for African-Americans from the late 1860s to the early 1900s. The area is now called Eastwoods Park and is located two short blocks from the school.

Although several trustees might have individually preferred one name over another, all voiced their verbal consensus of changing the school’s name to Russell Lee Elementary School.

District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias added that it had been the board’s practice in the past to defer to the district-in-question’s trustee for the naming recommendation. Lee Elementary is within District 5 Trustee Amber Elenz’s jurisdiction. Elenz strongly supported her residents’ recommendations.

Photo by Russell Lee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This article has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Laurie Marchant’s name. In addition, one of our readers pointed out that Russell Lee resided at 3110 West Ave., which is in the Heritage neighborhood, not Hyde Park, though we were unable to confirm this definitively.

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