Pop quiz: Jeff Davis was ________________________.
(a) A populist governor and U.S. Senator from Arkansas in the early 1900s.
(b) A comedian on the TV show “Whose line is it anyway?”
(c) The first and only president of the Confederacy.
(d) An artist who creates mementos out of old vinyl records.
OK, technically all four of those men were named Jeff Davis. But when you hear the name, which figure comes to mind first?
That will be a central question when the Austin City Council holds a public hearing Thursday over a proposal to rename Jeff Davis Avenue in Brentwood to something, well, less War-Between-the-States sounding.
As part of our community’s reexamination of statues and place names commemorating Confederate leaders, the council is considering proposals to rename Robert E. Lee Road after Azie Taylor Morton, the first African-American to serve as U.S. treasurer, and rename Jeff Davis Avenue to honor William Holland, who served in various elected posts and championed educational opportunities for black students. (Update: The council approved the renaming of both streets Thursday evening.)
Residents along both streets oppose the name changes by a roughly 2-to-1 ratio, at least among the fraction of property owners who sent a written response to the city. For the most part, the opponents point to the cost and hassle of updating their driver’s licenses, checks and mailing addresses with various institutions. Some question more broadly whether history is being painted over in the name of political correctness.
But at least six residents raised a curious argument: Jeff Davis Avenue isn’t named for that Jefferson Davis.
You see, there was a Jeff Davis who served three terms as Arkansas governor before a stint as U.S. Senator.
“Jeff Davis is not the same as Jefferson Davis, the person associated with the Confederacy/Racism,” one resident wrote to the city.
“Two separate old timers in the neighborhood swear this street was named after the Governor of Arkansas from 1901-1907,” another resident wrote to the city. “The next two streets are also named for governors of the same period.”
That last part is true. Next street over is Jim Hogg Avenue, named for the Texas governor from 1891-1895, followed by Joe Sayers Avenue, who occupied the governor’s mansion from 1899-1903.
Why round out the trio with a governor from Arkansas, though?
No one can say for sure. Nothing in the public record indicates where the Jeff Davis name came from, apart from the fact the developer included that street name on the plot for the neighborhood in 1927, Rusty Heckaman, a reference archivist with the Austin History Center, told me. While there’s no definitive proof, Heckaman said he wouldn’t be surprised if the street was named for the Confederate leader, given the resurgence in the 1920s of the “Lost Cause” framing of the Civil War as an honorable battle over states’ rights, not a desperate fight over slavery.
But he can’t say for sure: “I wish we had a smoking gun, but we don’t,” Heckaman said.
For some in the Brentwood neighborhood, however, the Arkansas governor theory persists. Maybe it’s the truncated name. “I do not recall in my history classes Jefferson Davis ever being referred to as ‘Jeff,’” one resident wrote.
Fair enough. But Texas also has a Jeff Davis County, and historians say that one is named for the Confederate president. And it’s worth noting the younger Jeff Davis, born a year into the Civil War, was himself named after the figurehead of the Confederacy.
But let’s assume for a moment the street in Brentwood is named for Arkansas Gov. Jeff Davis. Why are we honoring him?
In the early 1900s, the Arkansas governor railed against the right of African-Americans to vote and called for the segregation of property taxes so that white people could ensure their tax dollars went to whites-only schools. Davis’ speeches often extolled the virtues of lynching with shameful language I won’t repeat here. Historian Fon Louise Gordon, quoted in Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950, argued the governor was responsible for “the injection of racial hatred, not merely exclusion, into political rhetoric” of the time.
Is this Jeff Davis somehow better than the other Jefferson Davis?
Let me tell you instead about William Holland.
An ex-slave who served in the Union Army, Holland went on to become a Travis County teacher, county commissioner and state representative. As a lawmaker in 1876, he authored legislation establishing Prairie View A&M University to provide educational opportunities for African Americans. In 1887 he lobbied for the creation in Austin of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute for Colored Youth — one of the precursors to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He was serving as the institute’s superintendent when he died.
In their own ways, in their own times, Jeff Davis and Will Holland made it clear who they would welcome on their streets. I know who I would welcome on mine.