CM Houston: Tired of being invisible

District 1 Austin City Council Member Ora Houston questions reason she was left out of key meeting regarding the Lions Municipal Golf Course.
Shelby Tauber / AMERICAN STATESMAN

 

This is one of those moments in which City Council Member Ora Houston, the lone African American on the Austin City Council, questions whether she is invisible.

Not in the superhero way, but in the manner that some social scientists say disproportionately affects black women.

“It is unfortunate that in 2018 we still operate by the same good old boy rules, practices and procedures of the past,” Houston told me. “What happens in those situations is that there are voices that are not being represented in the room.”

A case in point is the way Houston was cut out of high-level talks regarding the University of Texas’ Lions Municipal Golf Course – even though swaths of UT are in her District 1; even though she initiated meetings last year with UT President Gregory L. Fenves to discuss options for saving Muny and dealing with the expiring lease agreement between the city and UT; and even though she kept Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Alison Alter in the loop of information regarding those meetings.

Yet, when Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson called the meeting a couple of weeks ago regarding Muny, Houston was not among those invited to the table. Those who were invited and attended were: Adler, Alter, Fenves, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk.

READ: Why it’s exhausting being black in Austin

Watson says he chose the group based on their ties to Muny and ability to jump-start stalled negotiations regarding the popular golf course. Alter’s District 10 includes Muny as does Howard’s legislative district.

“I convened the meeting because I’ve become frustrated with both parties (UT-Austin and the city) and how they are approaching the matter,” he told me. “The purpose of my meeting was to light a fire.”

“I invited the mayor, city manager and council member who represents the neighborhood where the golf course is located. I’m pleased other council members are interested in this and I would encourage as that fire continues to burn, those council members need to make their interests known to the city and go for it. That is what is going to be necessary.”

Watson noted the clock is ticking on Muny’s future as an 18-hole, city-operated golf course. Under the contract, the city leases 141 acres (that include the golf course) along Lake Austin Boulevard from UT-Austin for more than $400,000 annually — a fraction of what the property would fetch on the market. That was estimated at nearly $6 million annually several years ago if leased for mixed development.

As far back as 2011, the city has known that UT’s desire was to permit the lease to expire next year as UT officials sought to monetize the entire 345-acre Brackenridge tract – which includes Muny — to generate more money for academic programs.

UT’s long-standing plans to turn the property into a mixed-use development were made more difficult, but still possible, when in 2016, the National Park Service – prompted by a group of golfers, environmentalists, Austin residents and black leaders — added Muny to the National Register of Historic Places.

Muny is recognized as one of the earliest municipal golf courses in the former Confederate states to be desegregated. Since that time, Watson said, negotiations between the city and UT have nearly stalled.

RELATED: Muny added to National Register of Historic Places

Houston isn’t buying explanations that the snub was an oversight. She made that clear in an email to Cronk this week. After first thanking Cronk for sharing information with the whole council about the meeting Watson called, she went on to say:

“It is, however, unfortunate that I was not included in that meeting. Not that I would have anything additional to offer. I have been meeting with the President and the Agent since last year regarding these very issues and the University is in District #1. My most recent face to face with President Fenves was May 11th to discuss an option that I suggested. How embarrassed I am to be discussing some of the same issues and be unaware of the meeting. So much for my credibility with the President.”

It was not the first time Houston has been overlooked on matters that directly affect her district. She elbowed her way into talks regarding how the public would be informed about the planned Capitol Complex construction, which would impact traffic on roads in her district.

She notes that Adler’s longer-term plan to generate money for Austin residents experiencing homelessness by leveraging taxes aimed at tourists who stay in local hotels was taken seriously, but not so with her proposal to temporarily house homeless residents in state facilities with empty beds.

Some no doubt will say the snub Houston sees in such matters is all in her head. It’s not.

READ ALSO: Are black women invisible study

The experience of going unnoticed and unheard is not unique to Houston, but a common occurrence for many black women, University of Texas professor and cultural critic Lisa B. Thompson says.

Black women, she said, are either hyper-visible, such as Oprah or Beyoncé, or they go unnoticed in matters of health and wellness, such as the lack of focus on the needs of black women in improving their outcomes in heart disease and maternal mortality rates.

For professionals, it can play out like this, Thompson said: “You (a black woman) are in a meeting and offer an idea. There’s no response. Two minutes later someone else (a white person) will say something similar and it’s a great idea.”

Yes, I know.

Was Jeff Davis Avenue named after a different Jefferson Davis?

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.)

RELATED: After Charlottesville, Austin’s Confederate monuments get a second look

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.

RELATED: Austin City Council could rename Robert E. Lee Road, Jeff Davis Avenue

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.

What should be Robert E. Lee Elementary’s new name?

SLT confederate 08
Austin school trustees voted this week to rename the district’s Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Austin. Shelby Tauber / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In the weeks since the Austin school board agreed to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School, our inbox has been filled with suggestions — some sincere and some more mischievous.

Columnist and editorial board member Jody Seaborn tongue-in-cheek suggested renaming the school for Berkeley Breathed, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of “Bloom County” who was raised in Houston, graduated from the University of Texas, and briefly worked as a freelance American-Statesman editorial cartoonist. More serious in-house suggestions have included Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama and simply Hyde Park Elementary School. (Why bother with someone’s name anyway? The district’s eligibility rules allow neighborhoods and landmarks as well.)

Out in the community, we’ve heard suggestions ranging from the late author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee; famous Austin sculptor Elisabet Ney;  former Austin Mayor and State Comptroller Carole Keeton; and longtime educator Dr. Frances J. Nesmith. Nominations are due April 15.

There is also a movement afoot to rename the school for photographer and University of Texas professor Russell Lee. Russell Lee was born in Illinois, but moved to Austin shortly after meeting and marrying his second wife, a Dallas newspaper reporter, Jean Smith.

Longtime Austinite and environmental activist Shudde Fath knew Russell Lee personally. Her husband was Lee’s fishing buddy on the Highland Lakes for more than four decades. She wrote us last week to make her case:

During WWII, Russell served as an aerial photographer in the Air Transport Command photographing territory where Allied troops would soon be operating.  Ending WWII with an ulcer and a Rest & Relaxation recommendation from a doctor, Russell said, “Fishing perhaps?”  Jean’s Dallas parents were already familiar with Lake Buchanan, so Russell and Jean rented a cabin at Buchanan and stayed eight months.  They soon moved to a rent house in Austin and then bought a fine home on West Avenue.  Their home quickly became a center of hospitality for their growing circle of friends.  (Jean was Emma Long’s campaign manager when Emma became the first woman Austin City Council member in 1949.)

In 1946 Russell took photographs for the federal government’s Medical Survey of the Bituminous Coal Industry.  He worked on industrial photography projects for Standard Oil; photographed life in San Augustine, Texas; Pie Town, New Mexico; and for The Texas Observer; and the Images of Italy book with UT’s William Arrowsmith.  In 1965 Russell created the photography course in the Fine Arts Department at UT and taught there for eight years.

In 1978 “Russell Lee Photographer,” a biography by F. Jack Hurley was published, and in 1986 Ann Mundy’s award-winning video documentary was released.  Hurley’s bibliography lists 49 books containing Russell Lee photographs as well as permanent collections in the Library of Congress; National Archives; University of Pittsburg; Museum of Modern Art in NYC; Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York; and University of Louisville.  The Ransom Center at UT and Wittliff Gallery at TSU also have Lee collections.  His archives are at the Briscoe Center for American History at UT.

When Russell died in 1986, his obituary was in The New York Times, Washington Post, Time Magazine, Austin and Dallas newspapers among others.  The American-Statesman and Dallas Morning News also printed full-page retrospectives.

So, tell us. What should the new name for Robert E. Lee Elementary School be and why?