The Houston Independent School District’s ongoing de-Confederatizing process continues. Earlier this week they released a list of proposed new names for schools currently named for Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Dick Dowling, Albert Sidney Johnston, John Reagan, and Sidney Lanier.
Three of the schools would take the names of their neighborhoods: Northside High School is to replace Davis, Heights High School is to replace Reagan, and the Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School is to replace Johnston. A teacher (Margaret Long Wisdom) and two community leaders (Yolanda Black Navarro and Audrey Lawson) are also on the list of proposed changes that the board will vote for on Thursday, though the Reverend Bill Lawson, Audrey’s widower, has twice asked that her name be withdrawn from consideration, citing a local preference for a much-beloved teacher in Dick Dowling Middle School’s Hiram Clarke neighborhood.
And then there’s the Lanier-to-Lanier proposal. The board has proposed changing merely the first name of Sidney Lanier Middle School to Bob Lanier Middle School, to honor a former Houston mayor, a man with a far more complex legacy than Wisdom, Navarro, or Lawson.
First, a brief refresher on the school’s current namesake. Sidney Lanier was a private in the Confederate army who later repudiated his service and “rejoiced” at the downfall of slavery. Lanier won his fame as a poet and musician after the war. Unlike Davis, Lee, and Jackson and their like, he was no rebel leader—he later described himself as a teenager who got caught up in the patriotic frenzy of his native Georgia, where to shirk service was to become a pariah. Though little read today, he was widely-renowned in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and one of the very few literati from the Old South to achieve widespread fame.
Bob Lanier, who passed away in December 2014, served as Houston’s mayor from 1992-1998, presiding over the boom times that followed Houston’s last oil bust. A Baker Botts attorney turned real estate developer, Lanier also served on the Texas Highway Commission and as chairman of Metro, Houston’s transit authority.
His supporters claim he tamped down Houston’s rampant crime problem and greatly enhanced the city’s crumbling infrastructure. His defense of affirmative action won him awards from the NAACP and others. He began the arduous and still ongoing process of revitalizing Houston’s Midtown and Downtown areas.
The Houston Chronicle praised “the 6-foot-4 cowboy boot-wearing, sports-crazy political sharpshooter who rose from modest beginnings in blue-collar Baytown” highly upon his death, noting that he was likened to Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.
And here’s how HISD explains their rationale for changing the name:
Bob Lanier’s popularity cut across racial, ethnic and political party divides. Bob Lanier won many awards recognizing his achievements, including the Hubert Humphrey Civil Rights Award and the Urban Beautification Award.
Lanier did enjoy bipartisan support; Republicans loved his business and developer friendly policies, and the Democrat was very popular in right-leaning enclaves like River Oaks, Meyerland, and the Memorial and Galleria areas. He was not as popular in leftish areas like Montrose (where Sidney Lanier is located) and in African-American districts, where some believe that dirty dealing played a role in Lanier’s defeat of Sylvester Turner in the 1991 mayoral election, robbing Turner of the chance to become Houston’s first black mayor. (Turner, of course, is now the mayor, but Lanier’s successor Lee Brown beat him out as the first black mayor.)
Lanier also played a heavy role in the fact that Houston’s light-rail service now pales in comparison to that of Dallas and other big cities. Indeed, dating back to his days as Metro chair, long before John Culberson and Tom DeLay jumped in the fray, rail had no more powerful opponent than Bob Lanier, nor a greater friend of highways, especially those that passed through land he owned:
Perhaps the most controversial example of Lanier’s business-oriented vision is the Grand Parkway.
Lanier owned 1,700 acres of Katy prairie that became more valuable once the Grand Parkway passed through and development began there. He voted six times as highway commissioner to approve segments of the regional parkway, abstaining only from the vote on a stretch that would pass through his land, according to Chronicle archives. Later, as Metro chairman, Lanier directed millions to fund design work on the parkway.
He also is credited with orchestrating a coup by the Metro board in 1989 that killed then-mayor Kathy Whitmire’s $650 million plan to construct a state-of-the-art monorail.
It was a defining moment not just because he decided to run for mayor when Whitmire fired him. Opponents say his persistent criticism of rail is a key reason Houston has remained so car dependent.
Environmentalists now believe that the development of the Katy Prairie is a prime factor in Houston’s flooding woes, and mass transit remains a pressing issue, especially in low-income minority neighborhoods from which Lanier diverted funds to faraway ring roads passing through his own land.
And then there is the case of the Fourth Ward, part of which is—or was—known as Freedmen’s Town, thanks to its origin as Houston’s most historic African-American neighborhood. Built in the 1860s by newly liberated slaves, the environs of West Dallas Street were once known as Houston’s Harlem. Jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton once called it home. Folklorist Mack McCormick did some of his best musicological research there, and pinpointed it as the home of L.V. Thomas and Geeshie Wiley, the female blues team responsible for “Last Kind Words Blues.” Churches like the miraculously still-standing Antioch Baptist, whose pastor the Reverend Jack Yates was an early community leader, formed the bedrock of Freedmen’s Town.
The Great Depression sent Freedmen’s Town into a tailspin from which it never recovered. By that time, the Third Ward (southeast of downtown) and the Fifth Ward had emerged as rival centers of African-American life in Houston. In the 1940s, the federal government built San Felipe Courts, a housing project exclusively for blue-collar whites, on land that had once been home to the northern portion of Freedmen’s Town. (Country star Kenny Rogers grew up there.) Blacks were barred from moving in until 1968, and the development was later renamed Allen Parkway Village. Freedmen’s Town was further damaged by the construction of Interstate 45 through the eastern third of the neighborhood. By the 1970s, almost all traces of African-American life east of the new freeway were gone, absorbed by the parking lots and skyscrapers of downtown Houston.
West of the freeway large portions of Fourth Ward and Freedmen’s Town held out. As late as the 1990s, you could still see whole blocks of century-old shotgun houses on brick streets. Close as they were to the downtown skyline, juxtaposing those sights came to be a cliche of Houston photography; the impoverished past and the glittering future in one frame.
And it must be said that by the 1970s, the Fourth Ward had become crime-ridden and dilapidated, many of its residents having fled to suburbs in newly integrated Houston. Still, it was hallowed ground for African Americans, and for some, the only home they had ever known or wanted to know. In 1985, 64 acres and 563 buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, though a fat lot of good that has done: as of 2008, more than 500 of the buildings had been demolished.
Sweeping Freedmen’s Town off the map had been a dream for many a politico for decades. In most Southern cities, neighborhoods like Freedmen’s Town had be erased under the guise of what was once known as “urban renewal” in the 1940s and ‘50s. What remained in Houston was somewhat miraculous. Rice University architectural historian Stephen Fox called it “one of the last intact late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African-American neighborhoods in a large southern city.” The shotgun houses on its backstreets traced their roots back to Yoruba homebuilding techniques, Fox wrote, and added that they had “been transformed from an architectural emblem of poverty and shame into an icon of Houston.”
That may be, but that didn’t stop Bob Lanier. In 1994, a former city planning commissioner named Julio Laguarta and a suburban developer named Billy Burge came to Lanier with a new plan for the Fourth Ward. Laguarta’s non-profit Houston Renaissance corporation, its board packed with developers and construction company execs, would redevelop the area. Lanier heartily endorsed the plan both in principle and with millions in funding, and almost immediately after Houston Renaissance built its first phase (new townhomes where once had stood shotguns) Lanier ordered up $9 million worth of street and sewer improvements, basic quality-of-life enhancements long denied to the area.
And so the seeds of Freedmen’s Town’s final destruction were sown. As Lanier left office, Houston Press investigative reported Brian Wallstin put it like this: “[T]he Lanier administration ignored the interests of some of the city’s most impoverished citizens while helping to bankroll a plan to turn the Fourth Ward into a settlement of upscale townhomes.”
Which is what it is today, that and a few chi-chi restaurants and oontz-oontz velvet rope nightclubs catering to footloose and fancy-free O&G employees and other well-off young downtown workers. Even its name is gone: almost nobody under 30 calls it Freedmen’s Town or Fourth Ward anymore. These days Midtown is the preferred nomenclature.
Which brings us back to our point. Is it wise to change the name of a school honoring a mostly harmless Confederate poet to one honoring a man who diverted money from public transit badly needed in impoverished minority areas out to places where he personally stood to gain, and played a key role in destroying Houston’s most historic African-American neighborhood?
I put the question to Tim Fleck, a retired journalist and Lanier alum who served as a city hall reporter for the Houston Press and then a member of the Chronicle’s editorial board:
“Well, as a police reporter who spent way too many all-nighters covering murders in the dives of Fourth Ward for the Chronicle, it’s hard to get too nostalgic for the place,” he wrote in an email exchange. “With Bob, I think it was always more about class and business than race. If the inhabitants had been poor whites or Hispanics, he’d still have done the developers’ bidding. Lanier never had any problem employing and being served by African Americans as long as they knew who was boss. That’s still a pretty common attitude among the Houston elite.”
Again, is that the sort of philosophy worthy of an expensive name change for Sidney Lanier? (Proponents of the change claim it will cost $250,000; opponents say it will be double that.)
But if the name must be changed, I want to throw the name of Vassar Miller into the ring. She grew up blocks away from the school (and quite possibly attended it) and overcame cerebral palsy to become a Pulitzer-nominated two-time Texas poet laureate and one of the few Texas writers ever to draw praise from ornery Larry McMurtry. All that, and she claimed to be a descendant of none other than Sidney Lanier himself.
C’mon Houston: choose poetry over politics, just this once.