Stephen F. Austin realized that the fate of Texas rested on the torn hands and bent backs of cotton-picking slaves.
The “Father of Texas” worked against Mexican government efforts to abolish slavery in the province of Texas, where he was the most successful empresario bringing farmers and ranchers in search of unsettled land.
Slavery was the “curse of curses,” Austin said in 1831, but he had long understood that slave labor was the economic engine that would power prosperity for the territory.
He found workarounds to maintain free and forced labor to attract settlers and keep markets flowing, according to historians.
That acknowledgment surfaced last week in an official review of municipal property with direct or indirect ties to the Confederacy.
Its most prominent inclusion: the name of the city itself, given Austin’s work to perpetuate the institution of slavery.
On Wednesday, Austin’s Equity Office recommended the renaming of seven streets and removal of three historical markers honoring Confederate history, calling it a high priority for the city to decide.
The office published a second list, without recommendations for action, but in need of review of items grimly yoked to the Confederacy, including slavery, racism and segregation.
Austin’s name fell on that list.
The signs for Confederate Avenue and Dixie Drive may come down. But will Austin really consider changing its name amid national upheaval to jettison Confederate symbols?
“No one sees this as an attempt to change the name of the city,” said David Green, a spokesman for the city.
He told The Washington Post on Sunday that efforts were made to explicitly not make recommendations for the second list — which detailed items that were not directly tied to the Confederacy but could merit discussion by the City Council.
That includes the city of Austin itself, along with a street and a recreation center named after the “Father of Texas.”
The inclusion prompted concern among historians that Austin was being lumped into the seditious history of the Confederacy.
Like Thomas Jefferson before him, Austin was a man of contradictions and hypocrisy on the subject of slavery, said Gregg Cantrell, a professor of history at Texas Christian University and the author of “Stephen F. Austin: Empresario of Texas.”
Austin was not an ideological supporter of slavery. He described it as a scourge, “that unanswered, and unanswerable, inconsistency of free and liberal republicans,” he said in 1831, and allowed a handful of black colonists to settle in Texas with the same rights as whites, Cantrell wrote.
But despite those strong words, Austin said slavery in Texas must continue to fuel expansion and had a few slaves as domestic servants at one point, though it was never clear whether he viewed blacks as subhuman or genetically inferior — ideas used by slaveholders to justify the practice.
“He didn’t leave a paper trail on that question,” Cantrell told The Post.
But Austin warned that if the Mexican government enforced its ban on slavery in the joined state
of Coahuila and Texas, freed slaves would become “vagabonds, a nuisance, and a menace,” historian Eugene Barker wrote.
When it comes to the removal or renaming of Confederate-linked city property, however, Cantrell said there is a distinction between a slavery advocate such as Austin and seditious figures such as Robert E. Lee.
Austin died in 1836, nearly three decades before a war started over the Confederacy’s defense of slavery. How he might have considered rebellion will never be known.
“Austin never had to make the choice Robert E. Lee made,” Cantrell said. “We can’t tar him with that particular brush.”
Why Confederate monuments were erected and when are among the biggest considerations when
deciding whether they should be removed, said Walter L. Buenger, a professor of history at the
University of Texas at Austin.
The underlying reason to erect the symbols was to cement white supremacy and flaunt Jim Crow-era segregation, Buenger told The Post. Most were built between 1890 and 1925, he said, long after the Civil War ended.
Austin doesn’t have the same provocative history, he said.
“I don’t get that with naming the city,” Buenger said, calling the idea of changing the name of Austin “far-fetched.”
The small outpost on the Colorado River named Waterloo was renamed Austin in 1839, shortly after the capital moved there.
It would take an election for Austinites to decide whether to remove the name from the charter and rename the capital, said Green, the city spokesman.
So far, there are no serious efforts to rename Austin, and it may strike many as absurd to even raise this as an issue in a city with such a strong identity.
But if a movement grows, reverting back to Waterloo may not be the best choice. The name is already synonymous with total and utter defeat.