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Stephen F. Austin Defended Slavery. Should the Texas Capital Be Renamed?

Among the larger-than-life people in Texas history, only one can claim the title “Father of Texas”: Stephen F. Austin, the Virginia-born businessman who reluctantly accepted his father’s dying wishes to turn the Mexican-controlled territory into an American colony.

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Matthew Haag
, New York Times

Among the larger-than-life people in Texas history, only one can claim the title “Father of Texas”: Stephen F. Austin, the Virginia-born businessman who reluctantly accepted his father’s dying wishes to turn the Mexican-controlled territory into an American colony.

While in Texas in the 1820s and 1830s, Austin kept peace with Mexico, recruited white Americans to settle there and helped secure independence for the Republic of Texas. But for his near-mythological status in the state’s lore, Austin had a less exalted side: the defender of slavery who warned that freed slaves would become “vagabonds, a nuisance and a menace.”

Over the past year, cities across the United States have taken stock of how many of their buildings, streets and parks honor Confederate soldiers who fought to preserve slavery, ushering in a moment of reckoning for the largely male and white-dominated ideology cemented in monuments and on road signs. One of those cities is the Texas capital, which bears Stephen F. Austin’s name.

The city of Austin released a 25-page report last week identifying sites named for Confederates and slave owners. Buried near the end of the report was an uncomfortable truth about the city’s name itself: The Texas pioneer fought Mexico’s efforts to ban slavery, worried that the region would not prosper without slaves, and demanded that slave owners be compensated if they gave up their slaves.

While the report recommended the renaming of streets like Confederate Drive and the removal of signs like a Jefferson Davis highway marker, the delicate issue of the man behind the city’s name was punted for the City Council to decide. And more than likely, that means the Austin name will stay.

“I don’t know anyone who is seriously championing to change the name,” said David Green, a spokesman for the city. “There are things in our past that we may want to acknowledge and look at, but that doesn’t mean you want to rename a city, especially one named after someone who founded a republic that then became a state.”

So far, no one in a leadership position in Austin has come out publicly to advocate a name change.

On Monday and Tuesday, Austin’s mayor and the city’s 10 council members did not respond to questions about the report and whether they would support a new name for the capital. A spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who lives in the Texas Governor’s Mansion in downtown Austin, also did not respond to a request for comment.

But one high-ranking state official, George P. Bush, the nephew of the former president and Texas governor George W. Bush, made his thoughts known: absolutely not.

“Without Stephen F. Austin, there’d be no Texas,” Bush, the land commissioner of Texas and son of former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, said on Twitter. “To rename the City of Austin would be an insult to his legacy and all those who fought for Texas independence.”

Stephen F. Austin’s name can be found across Texas. There is Stephen F. Austin University in East Texas. There is an Austin Elementary School in the Panhandle, one in the Rio Grande Valley and another in the Permian Basin. His name is about ubiquitous on public buildings and streets as other 19th-century pioneers who settled Texas and won its independence, including Sam Houston and James Bowie.

Austin’s role in shaping what became the state of Texas is often likened to that of President George Washington in the United States. It was a role Austin initially did not want.

In the late 1810s, Austin’s father, Moses Austin, had lost his fortune in the lead mining business in modern-day Missouri after the War of 1812 and a financial collapse in 1819. His father, who had resettled his family before in the pursuit of wealth, hatched another get-rich scheme: colonizing the fertile, untouched lands of Texas.

But Moses Austin died before he could realize his colonization plans and asked his son to carry out his dream. Austin reluctantly agreed. He got approval to settle in the bottomlands of the Colorado River, forged diplomatic relations and peace with the Mexican government, and persuaded American planters to join him there.

As the cotton industry boomed across the South, Austin realized that the next market could be in Texas. That meant one thing: slave labor.

After the economy began to surge in Texas, Mexican officials worked to abolish slavery. Austin objected and won an exemption for the colony. When Mexico tried again, Austin secured a loophole for farmers in Texas, allowing them to free their slaves and then sign them to 99 years of indentured servitude.

He successfully used diplomacy with Mexican officials, but he eventually turned on them after Mexico jailed him for a year in the early 1830s.

Austin owned a few slaves but did not employ them like the farmers who settled in Texas, said Gregg Cantrell, a history professor at Texas Christian University who wrote the 1999 book “Stephen F. Austin: Empresario of Texas.”

“He worked tirelessly to make sure that slavery was able to survive in Texas,” Cantrell said Tuesday. “He held a very Jeffersonian view of slavery: He thought it was evil in the abstract but then he would turn around and say in the next breath that Texas must be a slave country.”

Austin and other Americans in the colony desperately wanted to become part of the United States. But the issue of slavery complicated that possibility after colonists won the Texas Revolution in 1836. Slavery was already a divisive issue in the United States and politicians worried about admitting another slaveholding state. (After a brief stint as its own country, Texas was annexed in 1845.)

Perhaps more than in any other state, Texas’ history is ingrained in its culture. Middle schoolers devote two semesters of seventh-grade history to learning about Austin, the Battle of the Alamo and other Texas pioneers. Austin’s relationship with slavery is not widely known outside historian circles, Cantrell said, but it is not the reason he is revered in Texas.

“If we are going to be removing Stephen F. Austin from the public square or the city’s name, then we need to start with Washington, D.C., and Washington state and Madison, Wisconsin, and Jackson, Mississippi. Those people were slaveholders too,” he said. “It’s an absurd proposition.”

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