Wheeler’s Grove Elementary: Restoring an Austin past purposely erased

Juneteenth Wheeler's Grove

A Juneteenth celebration in Wheeler’s Grove (today Eastwoods Park) in 1900.

Nancy Mims is a talented artist, photographer and fabric designer who also happens to be a former neighbor of mine who now lives in Hyde Park. With that disclosure out of the way, the reason I’m writing about Nancy is she had a role in persuading the Austin school board to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School last month. Friday afternoon, she reminded her Facebook friends that the school district’s deadline for nominating a new name for the school was rapidly approaching. She then shared the name she was nominating.

There are strong cases to be made for renaming Lee Elementary after Elisabet Ney, the sculptor who built her studio in Austin in the 1890s and whose statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin stand in the Texas Capitol, and for famed Depression-era photographer and University of Texas professor Russell Lee (which would allow the district to keep the Lee Elementary name), but Nancy made a compelling case for her suggestion. So I asked her if I could share her Facebook post with our Viewpoints readers; she agreed. Here it is:

I’m nominating Wheeler’s Grove, the former name of Eastwoods Park, the lush, green, tree-filled City of Austin park just a few blocks southwest of the school.

From the late 1860s through the 1910s, Wheeler’s Grove was the first public space in Austin where the city’s African-American community gathered for Emancipation Day, known in Texas as Juneteenth. Citizens from nearby freedom colonies* Wheatville and Horst’s Pasture (both in what is now the greater UT area) began the celebrations. According to news articles from the time, eventually hundreds and even thousands of people celebrated Juneteenth each year with great fanfare: festivities included the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, pageants, parades, contests, music, and speeches from local politicians and church leaders. According to records, it was the only large public space where Austin’s African-American community held Juneteenth for many years and it was also host to the African-American community’s meeting place for Fourth of July celebrations (as they were not welcome to join the “official” whites-only celebrations).

As Jim Crow laws restricted freedoms, cruel intimidation tactics (eliminating utilities, using black-owned properties for dumping city garbage) harshly rendered private properties unlivable, and the fully segregated 1928 City Plan map drew a line through the city, African American access to Wheeler’s Grove was ultimately prohibited. The land — in what had been declared by city plan and by deed a whites-only neighborhood — was developed by the city’s parks department starting in 1929, with the addition of new amenities like tennis courts, for whites only. From then on, a major part of African American history in this city was virtually erased, for only the beautiful old trees that remain in the park to stand as witness.

The people who celebrated and built community in their once-sacred space deserve to be recognized, remembered, honored and celebrated. Those of us fortunate to live in this area now have a responsibility to recognize and remember those who came before us, and we need to continue finding ways to bring justice to those who were unfairly banished from the spaces we continue to inhabit and enjoy. Bringing back the name Wheeler’s Grove as the school name would be a small but important gesture toward reconnecting and honoring a forgotten past in this community. And in doing so, we’d share responsibility for recognizing and restoring histories that had been purposely erased in a larger system of sustaining discrimination. Black ownership and history — marginalized or completely erased in this part of the city — should be recognized as part of a greater mission of closing the gap between black and white memory, with the ultimate goal of reaching true equality and equity.

What’s next, now that the nomination period has ended? As I understand the renaming plan, Austin school district officials are vetting the nominations (“to eliminate the Schooly McSchoolfaces,” as Nancy put it) before sending the list to Lee’s campus advisory committee, which will vet the school district’s vetted list. After gathering some community input, the advisory committee and district will narrow the list to three finalists and present them to the school board on May 23. It’s a process.

We continue to hear the charge that the school district engaged in a Soviet-style scrubbing of history by voting to rename Lee Elementary. As Nancy’s post reminds us, the history that was scrubbed was the history of Wheeler’s Grove, which is why it’s a perfect nomination for renaming Lee Elementary. And as I wrote in a previous blog entry, changing the name of Lee Elementary doesn’t change anything other than the name of a school. The history of the Civil War remains. It easily can be found myriad elsewheres.

Meanwhile, the art deco typography that spells out “Robert E. Lee” above the school’s entrance should be preserved. The same style lettering should be used for the school’s new name to keep it compatible with the building’s original design.

Once Lee Elementary is renamed, a plaque is in order not only to commemorate the school’s New Deal origins — something a current plaque already does — but to note how the school’s original name was part of the decades-long effort throughout the South to revise the Civil War’s history into a Lost Cause myth, and how in 2016 the community no longer wanted to honor a man central to that myth. If Wheeler’s Grove becomes the school’s new name, perhaps the plaque also will say that the community chose instead to restore a past that myth helped displace.

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* Check out “Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow,” by Thad Sitton and James H. Conrad (UT Press, 2005), for a history of “freedmen’s settlements” in Texas.