Stephen F. Austin is the latest historical figure whose legacy is being reexamined over his racist views, which could leave the university named in his honor grappling with how to balance Austin’s legacy as the father of Texas with his role in the expansion of slavery.
In a letter sent to Stephen F. Austin State University officials last week, anti-racism activist and Democratic political candidate Alec Johnson calls for the university to acknowledge Austin’s mixed legacy as both the “Father of Texas” and the “Father of Texas Slavery” while also honoring “the untold number of victims who suffered because of Austin’s choices so many years ago.”
University president Dr. Scott Gordon did not respond to an email seeking comment by deadline Tuesday afternoon.
Protesters around the nation have called for the removal of statues depicting leaders who are tied to racism or the Confederacy. Some have gone so far as to topple such statues, but Johnson’s letter suggests that the university not take such a dramatic step as renaming itself or removing the statue of Austin, known to students as Surfin’ Steve.
“That would likely incite a counterproductive furor and fail to focus the attention where it could do the most good and achieve the most social healing,” Johnson said in the letter.
Instead, Johnson suggests an additional mural or sculpture depicting enslaved people and Native Americans.
“Let’s not wait until such steps are forced upon us, rendering noble actions reactive instead of proactive,” Johnson said.
Austin’s racist past and connection to slavery is well documented, even in his own writings.
The city of Austin detailed its namesake’s connection to slavery in a 2018 report on monuments to Confederates and others who had supported slavery. The report states that Austin fought to defend slavery in spite of Mexico’s effort to ban the practice because he believed slave labor was indispensable for the sugar and cotton industry.
Freed slaves, Austin said, would turn into “vagabonds, a nuisance and a menace.”
“The idea of seeing such a country as this overrun by a slave population almost makes me weep,” Austin wrote in 1830. “It is in vain to tell a North American that the white population will be destroyed some 50 or 80 years hence by the Negroes, and that his daughters will be violated and butchered by them.”
Austin also spoke out against a rebellion led by enslaved African American Nat Turner in 1831 in Virginia, saying that “I sometimes shudder at the consequences.”
Austin died of pneumonia in 1836, and his views on race were similar to most other Americans of his era. Sam Houston, another early Texas patriot, was also a slaveholder but opposed the expansion of slavery. Houston was removed from the governor’s mansion in 1861 after he refused to swear allegiance to the Confederate States of America.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution formally abolished slavery in 1865.
Austin isn’t the only famed Texan to come under scrutiny from protesters in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross, a Confederate general, is the namesake of Sul Ross University in Alpine and a statue of him at Texas A&M University in College Station has been a lightning rod for protesters.
Like Austin, Ross also leaves behind a mixed legacy. While attacking a federal garrison at Yazoo City, Mississippi, in February 1864, Ross requested that white Union soldiers surrender while saying he would execute all black troops.
In later life, Ross served in the Texas Legislature where he had a record of supporting education and health care initiatives for blacks — including helping to secure funding for Prairie View A&M — and became president of what is now Texas A&M.