The Equity Office in the city government of our state capital has recommended that a number of that city’s place names be changed, foremost among these being the name of the city itself. The namesake of Austin, as many people know, is Stephen F. Austin, founder of the largest Anglo colony in the old Mexican province of Tejas. The Austin Colony was centered on the alluvial bottoms of the lower Brazos River, and was in most respects a small duplicate of the great Mississippi Delta back east. That means that the Austin Colony raised sugar and cotton with slaves. Oh yes, it also handed Santa Anna his hat on the banks of the San Jacinto River.
I do not think the name of Austin will be changed, but if it were, this might very well serve as the precedent for a frenzy of geographic revisionism. Houston would obviously have to go, since Sam Houston also approved slavery, owned slaves, and played no small part in humbling that Mexican army. If the names Austin and Houston are redacted, the names of a great many schools and streets in Texas will also have to be corrected.
And there is no reason to suppose it would end there. The namesake of the city in which I reside is William Joel Bryan, nephew and heir of of Stephen F. Austin. Austin died a bachelor, so a sizeable portion of his estate passed into the hands of W. J.. This estate included plantations and slaves near the mouth of the Brazos, and also the land on which the city of Bryan (and my humble abode) stands. So if the name of Austin is proscribed, Bryan must be proscribed as well.
The namesake of Dallas is disputed, but I am as sure as one can be that the city is named for George M. Dallas, vice president to James K. Polk, and warm supporter of Polk’s war against Mexico. (If you will permit a brief digression, I think the attempted obfuscation of the namesake of Dallas is of a piece with another obfuscation on the part of that dissimulating city. Dallas was built on cotton, not cows, so the name Dallas Cowboys is a false mustache. If an allusion to local history is what the team’s owners were after, they should have named it the Cotton Pickers. I might take up football watching if it gave a fair promise of a Dallas Cotton Pickers Cheerleader gamboling in her skivvies.) But, returning to my point, the city of Dallas was almost certainly named for a man who stomped his gringo boot on the bleeding neck of suffering Aztlan, and rumor has it that Aztlan is still sore about that. Sore, and plotting revenge.
I expect this report of the Austin Equity Office will succeed in renaming only a few streets, a park, and perchance a creek (in which, it so happens, naked hippies are wont to cavort). Their aspiration to change the name of Austin will not be foiled by the machinations of a shadowy neo-Confederate conspiracy, or by public protests and mass outrage (which would in any case be vilified and ignored), but by what we geographers call “geographical inertia.” Once a town, a road, or a name, is firmly placed on the land, it is very difficult to move it. Generally speaking, the name of a geographic feature (we geographers call these names toponyms) may change in the period shortly after a name is first applied, but toponyms “settle in” and “harden” with the passage of time.
This is, as I say, generally the case. Established toponyms tend to persist, although they are naturally subject to linguistic mutations in sound and orthographic changes in spelling. The two great exceptions to this rule are change due to foreign conquest and change due imperial fiat. In both of these cases, the change serves to remind people who is boss.
Foreign conquest is obvious enough. I said earlier that the men of the Austin Colony humbled a Mexican army on the banks of the San Jacinto River. Like most of the rivers in Texas, the San Jacinto has a Spanish name. The names of Texas creeks, meanwhile, are almost all English. These two layers of toponyms obviously reflect the two waves of conquest that rolled over Texas, and that erased almost all of the preexisting Indian toponyms. The Spanish conquered Texas, but they did not settle it, so they needed names for only the rivers. When the Americans handed Santa Anna his hat, and took Texas for themselves, they settled the land, and so bestowed names on little things like creeks and hills.
China is, perhaps, the best example of geographic revisionism by imperial fiat. I am far from expert in Chinese history, but my understanding is that the names of major cities were often changed when a new dynasty came to power. Dynastic change came at long intervals, so a man might grow old in a city his great grandfathers had heard of, but when a new dynasty came to power, it would often announce its ascendance and demonstrate its sovereignty by changing names on the map. We can see similar imperial fiat at work when Byzantium became Constantinople, and when Constantinople became Istanbul.
We see an assertion of sovereignty and dominion on a small scale in this quote, from the article in the Austin American Statesman that reported the proposal to change the city’s name.
“Before the council renamed Robert E. Lee Road as Azie Morton Road and Jeff Davis Avenue was changed to William Holland Avenue, the city gathered input from residents along those streets. A majority opposed the changes, which occurred in April.”
Azie Morton was an African American woman who served as Treasurer of the United States in the Carter Administration. William Holland was born a slave in Texas, fought on the side of the Union, graduated from Oberlin College, and returned to Texas as an educator and legislator. Neither is unreasonable as the namesake of a street, but to impose these toponymic antonyms in the face of geographical inertia and local resistance is, obviously, the work of imperial fiat.
Another line jumps out from the article in the American Statesman.
“The report also identified numerous historical markers related to the Confederacy on city property that could be targeted for removal. Those include a marker for the Confederate States of America that’s located at Congress Avenue and Cesar Chavez Street.”
In 1993, the now-imperiled marker was located at the corner of Congress Avenue and First Street; for a quarter century it has been located at the corner of Congress Avenue and Cesar Chavez Street; in the not so distant future it may be located in the Cabinet of Atrocities at the State Museum of Abominable Relics.
The mills of social vengeance grind slowly,
but they grind exceedingly fine.
I generally prefer old place names. In fact, I prefer place names that are so old that it takes some effort to discover their original meanings, just as it takes some effort to read nearly illegible names on weathered tombstones. In the case of place names that commemorate a bureaucrat or politician, I say the more weathered the better.
But I also prefer to know who is sovereign, and who has the ear of the sovereign, since getting this wrong can be so very painful. Calling the capital of Texas Austin does, after all, imply that the true magnates of Texas look upon Steven F. Austin as a venerable man, and that it is therefore safe for plebian Texans to do the same. But if the true magnates of Texas have changed their mind about Mr. Austin, plebian Texans need to know this.
We should not always do what is safe, but we should always know what is safe. And to that end, I think we should know about these stealthy redactions to the map of Texas..