AISD board votes to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary to Russell Lee

Robert E. Lee elementary school
Robert E. Lee elementary school

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In an eight-to-one vote, photographer Russell Lee was selected by the AISD board to be the new name of Robert E. Lee Elementary.

The decision came after a variety of opinions were voiced during the public comment portion of the meeting, Monday.

The only surviving candidate, Bettie Mann, 85, was sitting on the second row with her family at Monday night’s board meeting. She told KXAN before the meeting, she did not want to see the name Robert E. Lee change, until she became a finalist. She was the first African-America teacher at Lee Elementary, and taught on the campus 37 years. The kindergarten wing of the school will be named after Mann.

“When I left home going to Robert E. Lee [to teach] it was like going home,” said Mann. “Leaving home, going home. I really loved teaching there.”

“I know God has a plan for my life, and I will go on according to His plan,” Mann told the board prior to the vote.

The board released the following short biography of Lee:

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.”

Former board member Cheryl Bradley told the board she supported renaming the campus after Bettie Mann, and said renaming it after Russell Lee is not a big enough change.

“There’s no way you can say it and not think about Robert E. Lee,” said Bradley.

Wheeler’s Grove, the site of Austin’s first Juneteenth celebrations, was the third finalist.

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