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At Lee Elementary, the sign remains the same

Tuesday, May 31, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last week, the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees took the bold step of changing the name of Lee Elementary School to Lee Elementary School. However, if a group pushing for preservation of the school’s original sign has its way, schoolchildren and parents will continue to enter the building under a sign bearing the name of a Civil War Confederate general.

Up until last week, “Lee” stood for Gen. Robert E. Lee. Now it represents a tribute to Austin photographer Russell Lee. But, at the same time that the school district was deciding to make that change, over at City Hall, the Historic Landmark Commission continued to mull over a plan that would preserve the historic signage that enshrines the name of Robert E. Lee.

“If not you, then who? If not now, then when?” asked Austinite Carlton Wilkes. “The Robert E. Lee Elementary School is a canary in a coal mine, my fellow Texans. It should be preserved solely on the merits of its historical significance it presents. The precedent of allowing political correctness to destroy historic buildings is no different than examples of ISIS, the Ruins of Palmyra, the Nazis and the destruction of Poland — I could go on. Henry the Eighth (did) not favor historic preservation.”

Wilkes argued against removing the sign on the grounds that it would foster cultural genocide and, instead, asked the Historic Landmark Commission to initiate historic zoning on the school immediately in the interest of saving history and art. “Only hate can destroy a historic building,” he said.

In an answer to one of Wilkes’ questions, the commission voted unanimously to postpone the matter of initiating historic zoning to its June 27 meeting. Initiating the case would prevent the school district from changing the signage without the city’s permission. During AISD’s last visit to the commission, a district representative promised that the district would hold off on changes regardless. any changes it made would be in alignment with the look and feel of the current signage.

Caroline Roberts, who told the commission that she has twin boys who attend Lee Elementary, spoke against the postponement. She pushed for the historic zoning case to move forward to ensure that the school be preserved as a historic landmark, along with the art deco sign on the side of the school that reads “Robert E. Lee” and a Works Progress Administration (WPA) plaque that also bears the original name.

“Due to recent controversy over changing the name of the school, the historic art deco sign and WPA plaque are in danger of being changed or removed,” said Roberts. “Please do not let politics get in the way of preserving history.”

Roberts said that a marquee sign that sits on the corner of the school’s property is the “one that everyone looks at and reads” and is the one that could be changed without altering the integrity of the building.

Commissioner Arif Panju said that while he usually favored property rights over initiating historic zoning, he was most concerned about consistency. In that context, he said that this case “merits a robust conversation” about why this school would not qualify for preservation under the city’s standards. He said that he wanted to hear from the more preservation-inclined commissioners, in particular.

“Many people say if you don’t preserve history, sometimes you are doomed to repeat it. I can’t help but notice you are probably more doomed to repeat it if you erase history,” said Panju. “I’m no fan of Robert E. Lee … but I’m totally against revisionism.”

Commissioner David Whitworth said that although he saw the building as important, he was not very concerned about “whitewashing” history. He also rejected the idea that the physical removal of the name would be “an affront to history.”

“Robert E. Lee had nothing to do with this school for little children,” said Whitworth. “If this were Germany or if this were a Japanese internment camp, I do think that needs to be on the surface and there as a reminder to us. … But this one’s a little different. We took the signs off water fountains.”

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Russell Lee lived in Austin, but was not born in Austin.

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