Four new traffic signal boxes on Airport Boulevard will be painted with murals to honor an important East Austin educator.

New artwork on the boxes will be painted in recognition of Friendly Rice, an elementary-school educator who dedicated his four-decade career to fighting for Black children's access to education in Jim Crow-era Austin.

Rice, who moved to Austin in 1931, was an assistant principal at Gregory Elementary School in East Austin. The city was segregated at the time, its leaders having in 1928 codified a "master plan" that created a "Negro district" on its east side. 

In 1936, Gregory was renamed Blackshear Elementary School, and Rice became its supervising principal a few years later. He led Blackshear until his retirement in 1972.

The city's schools remained segregated through most of Rice's tenure — in either mandated or de facto fashion. In 1971, after the federal government found the school district to be in violation of the Civil Rights Act, it began bussing minority students to all-white schools. It closed two accomplished all-Black schools, Kealing Junior High School and L.C. Anderson High School, during the same period.

Rice was nevertheless able to carry out groundbreaking achievements during his time as principal, establishing one of the first libraries at an African American school in the Southwest, leading an effort to institute a hot-lunch program at schools in the district, and starting an outdoor garden at Blackshear Elementary

The three new murals honoring Rice will feature images of butterflies to reference designs on the coffee mug he carried daily during his tenure. The signal boxes honoring the educator will be at:

  • Airport Boulevard and Goodwin Avenue
  • Airport Boulevard and Oak Springs Drive
  • Airport Boulevard and 12th Street

The murals are the result of a collaboration between the Austin Transportation and nonprofit organization Creative Action. Creative Action will sponsor a bicycle tour of murals throughout Austin, including the three Rice artboxes, as part of its homecoming event Nov. 11-13.

Austin Transportation and Creative Action will also host a celebration with the Blackshear Elementary School community at a later date.