A recent decision by the Austin City Council has brought a lot of attention to one Austin road. It's also brought some speculation about its real history.
Council Member Ann Kitchen confirmed to KVUE Tuesday that the council will begin the process of trying to change the name of Robert E. Lee Road in South Austin after four street signs for the road were vandalized. This followed white supremacist demonstrations in Virginia that became violent over the weekend. In those protests, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when a car crashed into demonstrators.
Following the city council’s announcement, speculation arose whether the street truly was named after Robert E. Lee, the general of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War -- a result of controversy over slavery and state’s rights which ultimately led to the end of slavery in the United States. Some offered up another public figure by the same name they said the road could have been named after -- a chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the 1950s.
Rusty Heckaman, an archivist with the Austin History Center, offered some insight in an interview with KVUE.
“It’s been officially known as Robert E. Lee Road since 1940, and it has been referred to as that by various resources since the 1920s,” Heckaman said.
Though he did confirm Robert E. Lee was the name of an NAACP chairman in the 1950s, Heckaman said this time frame would not be able to confirm that this Robert E. Lee was the actual namesake for the road.
Instead, Heckaman said the Civil War general was the likely man.
In a statement to our news partners at the Austin American-Statesman, Heckaman said Robert E. Lee, the general, traveled along a route departing from Barton Springs in Austin after being stationed in the city following the annexation of Texas to the Union. Heckaman said a road from Barton Springs to Fredericksburg later opened along a route that crossed Lee’s trail in numerous places.
Heckaman reported that this road was listed as “River Road” in city directories up until 1939, though it fell out of use in the 1920s. He said a dispute arose over the future of the road that required mitigation by the Austin City Council, and Andrew Zilker, an Austin political figure and one-time private owner of Barton Springs, demanded the road be reopened citing its historical significance.
According to Heckaman’s reports, the road was acquiesced in 1938, resurfaced and reopened to traffic in 1940. He said a name change for the road was reflected in city directories where it was noted that River Road had become Robert E. Lee Road.
During the 1930s, Heckaman said there was also a push to build a highway along Lee’s trail to be named the Robert E. Lee Memorial Highway. Though he said it appeared to have lost momentum due to a lack of funding and inability to procure the rights-of-way for the highway, a portion of the highway completed in Travis County was documented with the name Robert E. Lee Road.
He added that an article from the Statesman documenting the paving of that road calls it both the Robert E. Lee Highway and Robert E. Lee Road. The description of this road matches that of the road from the city directories.