Rename Austin Over Slavery? How About Washington?

Where do we stop?


I grew up in Austin, Texas. At least that's what we called it then. I've often said that after all the growth it has experienced, I barely recognize the city I once called home. If a new proposal goes anywhere, though, I won't be able to call it home or Austin.

The Austin Equity Office, you see, recently published a report on Confederate monuments. It compiled a list of parks, streets, and facilities named for slaveholders, Confederate veterans, and other symbols of the antebellum South, and it provided cost estimates for changing names and removing statues.

One of the people mentioned is Stephen F. Austin, who played a central part in the founding of Texas. Though he owned no slaves and died long before the Civil War, the report notes that he "fought to defend slavery in spite of Mexico's effort to ban it" and feared that freed slaves would be "a nuisance and a menace." Among the things named after him are a street, a high school, a recreation center and…a city of nearly a million people.

The unlikely idea of changing the city's name, which the report raised, has provoked outrage and incredulity. I am no fan of Confederate statues, flags, and nostalgia, but the critics have a point. Carting off a bronze sculpture of Stonewall Jackson is one thing. Renaming a city is another.

Compared with the sins of the people who took part in secession and bore arms against the United States, Stephen F. Austin's were not major. In any case, the connection between him and the city has withered to irrelevance.

When you think of Monument Avenue in Richmond, you think of the Civil War. When you think of Austin, you think of Willie Nelson, the University of Texas, South by Southwest—almost anything but the person it was named for. In much of the Lone Star State, "Austin" is shorthand for "crazy liberals."

If re-christening is obligatory there, sign-makers are going to be working overtime across the country. The nation's capital and dozens of other Washingtons were named for a slaveholder. So were Madison, Wisconsin, and Jefferson City, Missouri. Anything named "Columbus" or "Columbia" would need a replacement, given the fate of Native Americans once the explorer arrived.

And let's not forget the big enchilada: America. Its name came from Amerigo Vespucci, who on one of his voyages to the New World captured a couple of hundred natives to sell as slaves.

This is not to say the campaign against Confederate symbols is mistaken. On the contrary, it's long overdue. The University of Texas has taken down statues of four Confederate leaders. The city of Austin has renamed Robert E. Lee Road and Jeff Davis Avenue. Confederate Avenue and Dixie Drive could be next.
The reasoning behind such changes is unassailable. It's an abomination to honor the Confederacy, whose chief purpose was preserving white supremacy and African-American bondage. There is no way to think of Lee or Davis without recalling the vast monstrosity they upheld.

But Austin, like other cities, has an identity entirely separate from its namesake. As the report noted, "Where do we stop?" is a reasonable question. I don't know exactly the right place to stop, but the name of the city is way past it.

This addled suggestion, however, should not be used to discredit the reassessment of problematic tributes. The mostly white, mostly male people who ran cities and states decades ago had the right to decide who deserved a statue or a street name. The more diverse people in charge today have the right to make additions and deletions in accordance with their own values—racial equality being one.

Austin has a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and a Cesar Chavez Street because locals came to see the contributions of people of color. That's not political correctness. It's democracy. You know why they call the Confederacy the Lost Cause? Because it lost.

Changes like this don't "erase history" as some critics charge. On the contrary, they expand our appreciation of history to include oppressed groups that were once rendered invisible. Confederate statues can serve an educational purpose—in museums. A Jeff Davis Avenue, however, makes about as much sense as a Benedict Arnold Drive.

It's important that Americans have begun to rid ourselves of monuments to avoid glorifying evil and folly. It's equally useful to know where to stop.