Robert E. Lee Elementary School’s Campus Advisory Council has recommended three names to Austin ISD trustees for consideration for the renaming of the school. The names are, in order of preference: Russell Lee, Bettie Mann and Wheeler’s Grove.
In a report submitted to the school board, the CAC stated the following:
“Despite many worthy choices, this list reflects a very strong consensus among the CAC, based on three community forums and two committee meetings dedicated to selecting choices for a new name. What clearly emerged was that the most meaningful names must have local significance, must honor our history, and must reinforce our belief in diversity and education for all. Each, in its own poignant way, does just that.”
The CAC is an advisory body made up of teachers, staff, parents and other members of the school community.
The CAC report thanked the school board for its trust in the community to identify names worthy of the school:
“This process, beginning almost a year ago, has often been agonizing and emotional. People have deep loyalties to this place we call ‘Lee.’ But giving us a measure of control over our destiny has brought us together around a shared goal of giving our school a name that all children and families can be proud of.”
Below is information provided by the CAC about each choice and the reasons each was selected by the CAC.
Russell Lee was one of America’s most important photographers. He is best known for his work with the Farm Security Administration, documenting poor and working people of all races and ethnicities in Texas and many other states. He was a longtime resident of the school’s neighborhood and the first professor of photography at the University of Texas. He is known for being an inspiring teacher and a compassionate artist. A major collection of his work is archived at the Briscoe Center for American History at UT. This includes the renowned photo essay, “Study of the Spanish Speaking People of Texas.”
Russell Lee was a local figure who was a friend, mentor and teacher to many people in our neighborhood. As a person and artist, he embodies our culture of learning and respect for diversity. His work, hanging in the hallways of the school, would provide ready-made lessons in history and the beauty of ordinary people. His name also allows us to retain “Lee” as the name of our community, while allowing us to attribute the name to a person we feel genuinely embodies our values.
Bettie Mann was the first African-American teacher at Lee Elementary School, and her sons were its first African-American students in the 1960s, when Austin schools were beginning to integrate. Starting in 1968, she taught at Lee for 37 years—22 years as a full-time kindergarten teacher and 15 years as a substitute. She is remembered as a warm, loving and inspiring leader by generations of students, parents and teachers.
Naming our school after one of its very own teachers would honor the school itself and the value of what it has provided for generations. In recognizing Bettie Mann, it would also honor the many teachers who, though they rarely get schools named for them, have the greatest effect of anyone on the lives of children.
Wheeler’s Grove was the site of Austin’s first Juneteenth celebrations and was a well-known public gathering place for African-Americans from the late 1860s to the early 1900s. The area is now called Eastwoods Park, located two short blocks from the school. They are connected by Waller Creek, which borders the school playground and flows through the park to the south.
Naming our school after a place that was once a symbol of emancipation would reclaim this important piece of our neighborhood’s history and inspire future generations. The students of Wheeler’s Grove Elementary could act as stewards of Eastwoods Park and develop a special relationship with that place and its history.