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Initiative to rename Robert E. Lee Road moves forward

Wednesday, August 16, 2017 by Lisa Dreher

Cities across the country, including Austin, are swiftly making strong statements following the recent clash in Charlottesville over removing a Confederate statue, which ended in a woman’s death and a response from President Donald Trump some deemed lukewarm.

Council Member Ann Kitchen during City Council’s work session Tuesday took up the challenge launched by Council Member Greg Casar over the weekend and announced that she has created an application for Council members to sign for initiating the process to rename Robert E. Lee Road, which was named after the Confederate States Army general.

“Seeing the hatred and the violence … it should shake us all to our core,” said Kitchen, who represents District 5 where the street is. “And I think it’s incumbent on all of us and the responsibility of the entire country to stand up and say this is not who we are, and this is not who we are in Austin and this is not who we are in Texas.”

Kitchen said she intends to file the application within the next day or two before Council’s Thursday meeting for Council members to sign. Kitchen added she wanted the community to know that if the initiative passes, renaming the street may take up to a few months: not because the city is slow in response but because it has a formal process for renaming streets involving safety concerns and picking alternative names.

Council Member Ora Houston, who is currently the city’s only African-American Council member, said the recent events were “harrowing” and wanted more details on the initiating process. “Is there a process where the people who live on those streets have the ability to initiate a name change?” Houston asked. “If it is, I’m wondering why we’re doing the top down rather than giving them that option to initiate a petition.”

Kitchen said an application can be filed either by not less than 50 percent of the owners of the property abutting the streets or by an “officer or attorney representing a governmental subdivision,” which could be a Council member.

There is already a Change.org petition with nearly 15,000 signatures to rename the road, but Kitchen said she did not want the burden of work to rest on community members.

Robert E. Lee Road runs past the Umlauf Sculpture Garden in the Barton Springs area before meeting Barton Springs Road, an area Kitchen said is valuable to community members who she especially wants to include in the discussion.

Council Member Leslie Pool has also asked Kitchen to add Jeff Davis Avenue, in Pool’s District 7, to the application. “I’m looking to hear from the residents who live on that street and then the general community what names they would like us to consider,” Pool said. She added she would look at helping fund the initiative with some of the estimated $3,500 ending balance allowed in her office budget. One possible new name is Sojourner, after abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.

Casar also called for renaming the street in a Facebook post on Monday, two days after the Lee street signs were marked over with red paint. Council’s work session partly focused on its budget, and so Casar wanted Council to look at the initiative’s fiscal as well as its social consequences.

“I think we should sign onto Council Member Kitchen’s application and also consider in this budget session what it would take to get that done effectively in the next fiscal year,” Casar said. Casar, who attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said Council could budget for future plaques explaining why Confederate names and symbols were removed to keep historical integrity.

Council Member Alison Alter said she is working on budgeting part of the General Fund for city staff members to participate in Beyond Diversity, a two-day seminar recommended in the city’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities report, released in April. Alter said she may also use her own office funds for her own staff to participate.

“As leaders of the city, we still have a lot to learn in our ability to respond to the needs of our community,” Alter said.

Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT.

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