The history - and future - of Confederate statues, monuments in Texas

The debate rages on over the future of Confederate-era statues in Texas and throughout the South. What both sides of the debate - and historians - say about the prevalence of such monuments, and what the future may have in store. 

Over the past few years, in many states throughout the South, including Texas, a new battle is taking place over the future of Confederate-era monuments, statues, and markers. None

For 82 years, the Jefferson Davis Statue stood at the Main Mall at the University of Texas campus.

Stood being the key word.

In August of 2015, it took workers just about two hours to remove the statue, after thousands of people – many of whom were students – signed a petition urging University President Greg Fenves to make the change.

At issue – Davis' leadership role in the Confederacy and his ownership of slaves.

It's just one of a handful of examples here – and across the country – where support is swelling to remove tributes to Confederate icons. 

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That's progress, according to Nelson Linder, the president of the NAACP's Austin chapter.

"They're racist. They're insensitive. They should be removed from public spaces," Linder explained.

He credited political leadership and an expansion of progressive ideals behind the push to review such statues.

"I was born in Macon, Georgia. So I grew up as a kid seeing those (Confederate) symbols, and also seeing the KKK. I'm used to that. But again, things do change now, and today, you have a lot more African-American public officials, you have more politicians who are progressive. So the environment has changed somewhat now. At one point in time, you had no opposition. It was dangerous to oppose those symbols. Now there are folks in office saying, 'Wait a minute, we need to address these things and take them down,'" Linder said. 

What's progress to some is a scary step backwards to others. 

"I think every time a school gets renamed, or a monument gets removed, it is a slam on the veterans that served in the Confederacy who fought bravely and nobly, and many never came home," said Marshall Davis, the Public Information Officer for the Texas Chapter of Sons Of Confederate Veterans of Texas. 

We spoke on the steps of the Littlefield House at UT, which once belonged to Confederate officer George Littlefield. At the time of his death, Littlefield was the university's largest benefactor, and his donations are evident throughout campus. It was Littlefield who commissioned the Jefferson Davis Statue on campus. 

"For the last 100 years, it was fine to put up and honor these people. The only thing now that has changed is public opinion – not the duty or service of any of these veterans to their country," Davis said. 

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Despite losing the war, Davis said it's important to honor those who served. 

"They fought for what they believed in. Whether you support the Vietnam War or not, you still need to honor its heroes. Some can say we lost the Vietnam War. We still need to honor those veterans, many of which never went home, who went to serve their country. In 1861, both the citizens of Texas and the state legislature voted to secede from the Untied States and join the Confederate States of America. Therefore, the Confederacy was the nation of which Texas was in. So any Texan who went to fight in the war, served the war on behalf of his country," Davis said. 

And just months after UT removed the statue, the Austin ISD board voted to change the name of "Robert E. Lee Elementary" in South Austin.

The newfound attention

The topic gained traction shortly after the deadly shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina where Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-Americans in a race-fueled attack. 

The massacre – and corresponding pictures of Roof holding a Confederate flag -- led officials in that state to remove the Confederate flag from the state grounds. 

"There are many folks who do these kinds of racist acts, who have these flags on their vehicles. So we've known for a long time, when you embrace those kinds of symbols, typically you harbor racism," said Linder. 

Davis points to that attack as the driving force to change such names and statues, dismissing Roof's ties to the Confederacy and calling him a "madman." 

Even the respective actions of those honored are up for debate. While Davis acknowledged the horrors of slavery, he contended that you cannot critique a person by just one facet of their life. 

"You cannot morally judge history by today's standards," Davis explained. 

Linder does not agree.

"It was wrong then, it's wrong now. In Germany, they don't embrace Nazism, they say, 'Look, this is clearly unacceptable. Let's take it down,'" Linder said. 

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Davis argued that slavery was only a component of the Civil War and that it was fought over money and power. However, UT History Professor Jeremi Suri rebuked Davis' claim. 

"There are very few things that almost all historians agree on. But there is one – which is that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. The Civil War was about slavery.  And you cannot understand the Civil War without recognizing the stubborn commitment to slavery by Southern States, the Confederate States during the Civil War," Suri said. 

Linder blamed the spread of such monuments and statues on a lack of knowledge over the Civil War. 

"America made a very important mistake. It didn't educate its population -- it embraced this (line of thinking)," Linder said. 

Suri said educators have improved their curriculums to provide students with a better understanding. 

"We now teach that history in the South that way. This has been a very positive change in the way in which the Civil War is understood in the last forty years," Suri said. 

He dismissed the argument of such removals as an act of "political correctness," adding it was a matter of sensitivity. 

"If you are an African-American student at the University of Texas, and you walk by the Jefferson Davis monument every day as many of them did when going to the Tower, that makes you feel unwelcome," Suri said. 

Texas' role

Throughout Texas, there are nearly three dozen counties named after those with direct ties to the Confederacy, whether that be through political or military service. 

But for a side that ultimately lost the war, why are tributes to their officials so widespread?

"Almost all of the naming and the statue building came out of an attempt to remake the history of the Civil War, and after about 1885, to make it into something which it wasn't, for the sake of the politics of the post 1885 time," said Dr. Walter Buenger, the chief historian at the Texas State Historical Association.

Texas was the seventh state to secede from the Union. While there was a period in the late 1800s to early 1900s where tributes to Confederate icons were commonplace, Dr. Buenger said the tide eventually turned. 

"Probably by about 1920, people began to turn away from Confederate statues, and Confederate commemoration, back towards Texas. Because Texas they could say won, and the Confederacy lost," Dr. Buenger said.

As for the ties to the war, Dr. Buenger pointed to population shifts during that era as playing a key role. 

"The Texas population grew very rapidly in the 1850s, and most of those people had zero connection to the 1830s and the Texas Revolution. And instead they were very much connected to the South. And the Texas population continued to grow on through the 19th century ... with most of them also coming from the South. So it's not surprising at all that they would have well into the 20th century a connection with the South. Many of them came from Mississippi, or Alabama, or Tennessee," said Dr. Buenger.

In fact, it was Oran Roberts, who fought on behalf of the Confederacy, who helped found the Texas State Historical Association, the organization Buenger now works for. 

It's why Buenger and Suri said many of the statues and monuments were built decades following the end of the war. 

JOIN THE DISCUSSION: How do you feel about Confederate statues and monuments in Texas?

Davis said he has no problem with other cultures erecting monuments and statues to their respective icons. 

"As Confederates and descendants of Confederates, we would request the same tolerance and diversity for our monuments and our heroes that other groups have asked for theirs," Davis said. 

The overarching debate has shown no signs of slowing down.  

"I think we'll find ourselves arguing about various monuments and various commemorations, but we won't eliminate these individuals from our history. So the question is not whether we should talk about Jefferson Davis or not, or Nathan Bedford Forrest, the question is whether we should have a monument or a school named after them," Suri said.

He noted history has a pattern of renaming schools and buildings.

"This is not to criticize those who named a school 'Robert E. Lee High School', or those who put up a Jefferson Davis monument in another time. That was another time, another era. But we live in a new time and a new era today, and we need to decide what are the things we want to commemorate, and what are the commemorations from the past that we might not want to continue as we go forward," Suri said. 

There may be no better clash of cultures than at UT, where civil rights icons such as Barbara Jordan are honored alongside those who defended the Confederacy. 

While the Jefferson Davis statue was removed from the Main Mall, it remains on campus at the Briscoe Center for American History. Davis said the Sons of Confederate Veterans are mounting a legal challenge over its removal and future placement. 

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