Should San Antonio follow Austin’s lead on renaming Lanier High?
On Monday night, Austin Independent School District trustees voted to change the name of that city’s Sidney Lanier High School. The move marked the culmination of Austin’s effort to rid its public schools of any associations with the Confederacy.
Lanier, a Georgia native, not only served in the Confederate Army but came to be known as the “poet of the Confederacy.” The AISD school board settled on a new name that would honor the memory of Juan Navarro, an Austin Lanier graduate who served in the U.S. Army and was killed in Afghanistan in 2012.
Austin’s move came three years after Houston trustees similarly decided to rename that city’s Sidney Lanier Middle School, replacing it with the name of the late Houston Mayor Bob Lanier.
In recent years, San Antonio dealt with the Confederacy issue at Robert E. Lee High School. In June 2015, a week after a 21-year-old white supremacist named Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., then-Housing Secretary (and former San Antonio Mayor) Julián Castro called on the North East Independent School District to find someone “more appropriate” than Lee to honor.
Castro’s Facebook post launched a Lee name-change movement which failed in its first iteration, but succeeded in 2017, with the NEISD board arriving at a compromise choice that seemed to frustrate everyone: Legacy of Educational Excellence (LEE) High School.
There has been deafening silence, however, on the issue of this city’s Sidney Lanier High School, a cornerstone of the West Side for more than a century. (For that matter, there’s been no serious discussion about Sul Ross Middle School, named after a Confederate general.)
In a way, it’s hard to explain the lack of outrage over Lanier. After all, the argument made by Castro and others against Robert E. Lee was that he committed treason against the United States and fought to preserve slavery.
Lanier did the exact same thing.
On ExpressNews.com: Lee doesn’t change, but what he symbolizes does
Lee, who died five years after the end of the Civil War, devoted the final years of his life to preaching reconciliation between the North and South, and urging his fellow Southerners to discard any physical or emotional remnants of the Confederacy.
Lanier took a more confrontational tack, with a poem, “Civil Rights,” that protested against the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
Lanier delivered his repugnant creation from the perspective of a character named Old Uncle Johnny Stiles. The poem argued that politicians from the North, with their outrageous notions of civil rights, were tossing both white and black southerners “into the ragin’ sea.”
Lanier concluded the poem this way: “By God! ef they don’t fling a rope, I’ll push the (n-word) in!”
What it comes down to is that Lee, Lanier and Ross all made the same decision to fight for the Confederate cause, but Lee is more famous for it, so he arouses more vitriol. He’s low-hanging fruit. Even though he urged the Southern states not to secede, Lee’s name is synonymous these days with the Confederacy.
To the degree that Lanier is remembered at all, he’s regarded as a poet. His stint in the Confederate Army is seen as a mere footnote. At one time, however, Lanier’s symbolic importance in the Confederate story was more evident.
Houston’s Lanier Middle School initially carried the name of Abraham Lincoln, before Confederate veterans protested. They convinced school trustees in July 1925 to change the name to honor Lanier — their beloved poet laureate of secession.
Since Lanier is a relatively obscure figure these days, you don’t score a lot of political points for taking on his legacy. Nonetheless, Mario Salas, a former San Antonio councilman who fought in 2015 for the Lee name change, applauded this week’s vote by the Austin school board.
“Any school, any monument, any plaque that has been used to uplift the names of people who supported slavery, and who fought for the protection of the institution of slavery, should be removed,” Salas said.
Patti Radle, the president of the San Antonio Independent School District board of trustees, said the board would be willing to discuss Lanier High School’s name if a groundswell ever emerged in the community. No such outcry has materialized.
“It hasn’t had any real serious discussion, not while I’ve been on the board,” Radle said. “At the campus, it seems to me that Sidney Lanier has always been lifted up as a poet, an educator, and I think the idea of him having been in the Confederate Army is just not something that has surfaced as an issue.”
At this point, the Lanier name is a source of tradition, an emblem of the West Side community, something that binds generations of families. By the same token, folks on the Northeast Side had grown attached to the Lee name because, in some families, it linked three generations of educational history.
The Lee name didn’t go down without a serious fight. The same would be doubly true if SAISD ever contemplated a name change for Lanier.
Gilbert Garcia is a columnist covering the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @gilgamesh470