Founded In 1881, And Segregated For Decades, Austin High Now Has Its First Black Principal

The sounds of Texas.

By Joy Díaz & Caroline CovingtonAugust 4, 2021 10:27 am, , ,

Principal Bedford. Photo: Joy Díaz/Texas Standard

Melvin Bedford is the new principal at Stephen F. Austin High School in Austin, Texas.

He has a reputation for bringing people together. That ability was apparent weeks before school even started, when students and teachers greeted him on his first day. The school band played and its folklorico dancers performed.

Bedford’s arrival is also a long-awaited turning point in the school’s history: he is the first Black principal at Austin High – a school founded 140 years ago, in 1881. What’s more, Austin High was segregated for decades until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional in 1954. One school employee commented during the welcome event that the school had “been segregated for longer than it hasn’t.”

As much as the change is welcome there, Bedford says it’s important to not forget the history either.

“That would hurt us if we forgot, if we just said, ‘Well, we have our first Black principal; we’re good now.’ No, now this is just step one,” Bedford said. “You have to tear down walls and tearing down walls is uncomfortable. Tearing down walls requires you to get up earlier than you expected and go to sleep later than you expected. It’s not fun, but the end result is a positive one.”

Bedford, with the foklorico dancers who welcomed him on his first day. Photo: Joy Díaz/Texas Standard

Another long-time staff member says Bedford’s arrival will help every student at Austin High know that they “matter.”

Bedford says it’s the students, and the teachers, who motivate him.

“They give me life!” he said. “That’s why I’m excited to be here, at this building.”

Plus, he says Austin High has so much history; he wants to acknowledge “the good and the bad.”

“We spend so much time trying to shut out the bad, [but] it’s the bad part of our history that shows how we’ve persevered to get to this point. It shows how strong we are as a community,” Bedford said.

Spanish teacher Kevin Gillion says the welcome event for Bedford was a rare show of support for an incoming principal – a person he’s excited to begin working with.

“I cannot express enough the joy that I feel,” he said. “No teachers have ever come out on the first day a principal arrived at the school; we’re all very excited. And so, we know he supports us and we are going to support him like nobody’s business.”

And Bedford is determined to instill a sense of pride in Austin High students and staff while he’s there.

“[I] want to make sure that I’m a part of that and make sure that when I walk into this building, I’m reminding everyone that we’re Austin High; we are the standard!” he said.

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