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After initial push, city’s effort to eliminate Confederate names loses momentum

Tuesday, May 3, 2022 by Willow Higgins

In the midst of the July 2020 protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, the city of Austin passed a resolution committing to remove or rename all city-owned assets, such as streets and buildings, that have names commemorating the Confederacy or other white supremacist causes. The passage of that resolution is just one piece of the city’s long history of efforts to change names with racist origins, but after years in the making, the renaming process is still crawling along.

Since the city began the process in 2017, only four such assets have been renamed, despite a series of self-imposed deadlines.

“Our parks, our schools, our streets should be named after the people we want to honor. Not the people we are ashamed of,” City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who sponsored the 2020 resolution, told the Austin Monitor. “We still need to learn about those people, but a book is a better way to learn. I wish we could rename everything tomorrow, but I appreciate that these names are supposed to be permanent so we need to do our diligence.”

A series of resolutions

The July 2020 resolution wasn’t the first of its kind in Austin. When the resolution was passed, Council members had “already begun to collaborate with their respective constituents,” according to the resolution, in part because similar directions had already been passed.

In October 2017, Council first passed a resolution calling for “robust public discussion of the history of (Confederate) monuments and commemorations.” The resolution asked for 1) recommendations to accomplish the removal or renaming of city property named after Confederate icons; 2) an analysis of the cost of removals, replacements or renamings; and 3) recommendations for disposition of artifacts of historic value, along with a report from the city manager in 90 days.

Fast-forward to July 2018, when the city’s Equity Office delivered a detailed report outlining a list of 14 assets prioritized for immediate review and a secondary list of 23 assets for the city to review with additional input down the road, which includes some big names like Pease Park, Bouldin Creek and even the city’s own name. To make the report, the Equity Office assembled a work group of key city departments and historical experts and consulted other cities that had taken on similar efforts. The report concluded with a list of next steps and recommendations.

“It is essential to acknowledge that societal values are fluid, and they can be and are different today compared to when our city made decisions to name and/or place these Confederate symbols in our community,” the memorandum read. 

A 2018 report detailed a number of city assets to be renamed or reviewed.

“It is also important to acknowledge that nearly all monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders were erected without a true democratic process. People of color often had no voice and no opportunity to raise concerns about the city’s decision to honor Confederate leaders. This process not only calls attention to remediating symbols of the Confederacy in our city, but creates a new opportunity for us to rename these symbols in order to commemorate the current values and legacy of those we choose to honor in our community’s public spaces.”

The cost of renaming the 14 high-priority assets slated for initial review was projected to be $5,956.23.

At the time the report was released, the renaming of two of the 14 assets was already underway. (Robert E. Lee Road and Jeff Davis Avenue were both successfully changed to Azie Morton Road and William Holland Avenue, respectively.)

The report advised that the Council member representing the area where the asset in question was located should take point on the renaming and “seize the opportunity to recognize the contributions of women and people of color.”

So when Council passed the July 2020 resolution restating its objective to rename certain city assets, much of the legwork had already been done. The updated resolution was designed to expound on what had already been completed and put things into motion.

The resolution also tasked the city manager with choosing “a cohort of least five, but no more than 10 city assets with latent Confederate history to move through this process within each six-month period beginning September 1, 2020.”

Just before the process was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic in December 2020, the deputy city manager released the first cohort of assets:

  • Metz Recreation Center, including Metz Park and Metz Pool (District 3)
  • Dixie Drive (District 2)
  • Confederate Street (District 9)
  • Plantation Road (District 5 & District 8) 

Two years after the list was released, only two items have moved forward. 

Metz Recreation Center in District 3 was renamed Rodolfo “Rudy” Mendez Recreation Center in the summer of 2020. 

Confederate Street, one of the most blatant of names, is currently in the process of being changed and is expected to be complete in June 2022. When the sign changing is all said and done, the Austin Transportation Department expects the process to cost just over $281.

‘Words are really important’

Cheyenne Weaver, a local artist and community activist, worked to push the renaming of Confederate Street along.

“How hard is it to just get it done?” Weaver told the Monitor. “It seems like it needed another kick. I recognize that Confederate Street is a small street, but a lot of people I talked to had never heard of it.”

Weaver hit the streets of Clarksville, where the soon-to-be former Confederate Street is located, passing out flyers and talking with neighbors. By the end of her effort, she accumulated about 300 signatures on a petition to change the name. While Council Member Kathie Tovo’s office was already working on getting the name changed, Weaver thought her conversations were a good exercise in community engagement and awareness.

“Most people (I talked to) were like, Oh my gosh, thank you,” Weaver said. “There were a couple of people who were just a little weirded out about changing history, which is a common feedback for a certain contingency of people …. We live in a very nice city, people are nice to each other, people are willing to have conversations. I don’t know if I changed any minds, but most people were willing to let me explain things.”

Harper-Madison received some similar feedback. “There are people who feel like if you rename things, you’re rewriting it,” she said. “But we are not rewriting, we’re just getting right.”

Weaver’s outreach focused on the fact that the historic portion of the Clarksville neighborhood became a freedmen’s area after it was slave quarters – one of the first freedmen’s towns established west of the Mississippi – making it particularly disrespectful to be named after the Confederacy. While researching the history of Austin, Weaver learned about Maggie Mayes, a former Austin resident and Black educator who made a profound impact on the Clarksville neighborhood. Come this June, Confederate Street will become Maggie Mayes street.

Harper-Madison is optimistic that, with time, the city of Austin will rename all of its assets that have names rooted in white supremacy. But it will take time, she said, and it will likely take activism, particularly from white people, to see it through.

“​​I think there are enough really kind, thoughtful white people that are gonna take their neighbors and friends and family members to task and say, we have to do better,” Harper-Madison said. “When they do that, it’ll happen.”

In February of this year, the Equity Office released its most recent memo on the matter, stating that it is “developing a database that builds off the 2018 report that identified primary and secondary assets for review” to make it easier for City Council to work through the renaming. The memo promised a SpeakUp Austin page by the end of February to generate community input, but instead it went live at the beginning of this month after being translated into the top five languages spoken in the city.

The next update is planned for September of this year.

“Words are really important,” Weaver said. “There is almost a magic in words to convey what our culture thinks is important. So when we retain words that honor things that are moments in history that have been really oppressive and are symbols of things that are huge inequalities and dramatic events like slavery, that stuff affects us, all of us. I don’t want to live in a city that thinks that’s OK.”

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here. This story has been changed since publication to make a distinction between the Clarksville historic district and larger neighborhood.

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