Though Feature Week is over, The Texas Orator is honored to publish this piece by a professor at UT Austin, Dr. Richard J. Reddick, and a professor at SMU, Dr. Candice Bledsoe.
John H. Reagan High School’s motto is “Not Without Honor.” Is it honorable for school facilities to be named after Confederacy members?
Recently, the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees voted to rename five buildings named for men (Allan, Fulmore, Lanier, Johnston, and Reagan) who served in the Confederacy. This action caught our attention, as graduates of the schools named after these men: Candice is a graduate of Reagan High, and Richard also attended Reagan, graduating from Johnston High.
The comments opposing the renaming today are similar to arguments about this sensitive issue not only in Austin, but in the state and nation: “The school doesn’t represent a Confederate official, it represents a community and its students.” “The money to change a name should go to other priorities.” “Changing a name means erasing history.”
During the 1960s, there was a spike in the number of Confederate-named schools and monuments across the nation, coinciding with the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the 1963 March on Washington, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. These namings were an aspect of massive resistance — a signal to Blacks and Latinos that these advances were unwelcome. The naming of a school after Lanier was particularly odd, considering he had no ties to Texas generally.
Ironically, many of these schools came to represent the potential of integrated school settings. There are generations of Austinites who attended these schools with racially diverse classmates, making lifelong friends. Many of us don’t particularly care about what these long-dead people did; their names are our identities just as we are Rams, Raiders, Vikings, and so on. A name change doesn’t alter that. Nations and communities change their names all the time: look at a map of Europe before the Berlin Wall fell and you’ll understand this fully.
A more interesting conversation is the idea that a name change will erase history. A closer examination of our history would underscore the work of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), a group that raised funds for Confederate memorials, and more insidiously, distributed propagandistic texts that normalized Southern secession, argued that slavery was morally justified, and endorsed the Ku Klux Klan as a defense against “misguided Negroes.” Many of those supporting the naming of schools after Confederate individuals were educated with textbooks endorsed by the UDC, which were used in American schools into the 1970s.
Part of the challenge for many of us is the everyday normalization of white supremacy. Whether you’re driving on Jeff Davis Avenue, visiting the Capitol, or looking at a map, it becomes mundane to see the Confederacy memorialized. Court orders, lawsuits, and protests over busing have been forgotten, but are part of the story of our community and how white supremacy has operated in Austin schools.
Renaming these schools is an opportunity to re-examine history. How many in the communities where these schools were built were involved in the process? Were people of color involved in these conversations? These voices demand more diverse representation in memorials, education facilities, and public art. Why does naming matter? In 1963, during the time when these Confederate monuments were erected, James Baldwin gave a Talk To Teachers. In his speech, he discussed the experiences of black children navigating American society. At a young age, children understand concepts of power, racism, and discrimination.
The next step for our community should be incorporating multiple voices, with special attention to the views of those who are most impacted: alumni, the local community, and students. It’s also critical to explain why and how these names came to represent these schools, and ask the question: What names reflect the values of our community? What names might inspire young people to achieve academically?
We also need to have more conversations about how we have framed American history. For instance, there are over 1,500 memorials to the Confederacy in the U.S. — but nowhere near that number of monuments of abolitionists, champions of Reconstruction, and civil rights activists. These depictions would represent the values of Americans more accurately. The Austin school board has already initiated this conversation by renaming schools after local community leaders such as Bertha Sadler Means, Gus Garcia, and Ann Richards. Each of these individuals stood for educational equity and equal rights, values that exemplify the spirit and aspirations of the Austin community, and Texas.
The time is up for the normalization of white supremacy, and this is just the beginning. The removal of Confederate names from Austin schools is a step in the right direction for us to become a more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and just society.
Dr. Richard J. Reddick, Johnston High Class of 1990, is an associate professor in Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also holds courtesy appointments in African and African Diaspora Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies and is assistant director of the Plan II Honors Program.
Dr. Candice Bledsoe, John H. Reagan High School Class of 1996, is a SMU faculty member at the Simmons School of Education and executive director of the Action Research Center in Dallas, Texas. She also leads the SMU Women of Color Research Collective. Her research explores equity, access, and the experiences of the underrepresented. She has received numerous fellowships. Dr. Bledsoe is a member of the 2017 cohort of Dallas Public Voices.