Ever since they were dedicated in 1933, statues of three Confederate leaders and one son of a Confederate officer had stood beneath graceful live oaks on the campus of the University of Texas. In a few hours late Sunday and early Monday, crews removed them from their pedestals on the orders of UT President Gregory L. Fenves, who said the university should no longer glorify those who subjugated African-Americans.
The bronze likenesses of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston and Confederate Postmaster John H. Reagan will be moved to the university’s Briscoe Center for American History. The statue of James Stephen Hogg, the first native-born governor of Texas and the son of a Confederate general, was removed for architectural and aesthetic reasons as it was part of the exhibit on the South Mall, and it will be installed at a campus site yet to be selected, officials said.
The abrupt removal of the statues under cover of darkness came in the wake of protests a week earlier by white nationalists and neo-Nazis against plans to remove a statue of Lee from a city park in Charlottesville, Va. One counterprotester was killed and numerous others were injured when a man with far-right leanings drove his car into a crowd, authorities there said.
“The horrific displays of hatred at the University of Virginia and in Charlottesville shocked and saddened the nation,” Fenves said in a message to the university community. “These events make it clear, now more than ever, that Confederate monuments have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism.”
UT spokesman Gary Susswein said the removal took place after dark and without warning for public safety reasons. A similar process unfolded last week in Baltimore, where four Confederacy-related monuments were hauled away after dark. A couple of dozen supporters and critics of UT squared off, trading sharp words during the removal work, but there were no injuries or arrests, officials said.
Fenves had a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis removed from the Main Mall two years ago, and it now resides in the university’s Briscoe Center. A year ago, he had an inscription honoring the Confederacy and Southern pride removed from the South Mall after earlier saying it would remain in place. The additional statues, stored for now at UT’s warehouses east of Interstate 35, “will eventually be available for research and education” but not necessarily for public display, said Don Carleton, executive director of the center.
When Davis’ statue was taken down, Fenves said he was leaving the Lee, Johnston, Reagan and Hogg statues untouched because those individuals had deeper ties in Texas. But Charlottesville changed everything, and the UT president decided that the remaining Confederate statues had to go from their place of honor. Commencement takes place on the Main and South malls, in the shadow of the UT Tower.
“The historical and cultural significance of the Confederate statues on our campus — and the connections that individuals have with them — are severely compromised by what they symbolize,” Fenves said. “Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans. That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry.”
He added, “The University of Texas at Austin has a duty to preserve and study history. But our duty also compels us to acknowledge that those parts of our history that run counter to the university’s core values, the values of our state and the enduring values of our nation do not belong on pedestals in the heart of the Forty Acres.”
But it will take more than the removal of Confederate statues for UT to overcome its struggles with segregation and integration. Founded for white students, it didn’t admit a black student until 1950, and then only by order of the U.S. Supreme Court. Blacks made up only 5.1 percent of last fall’s freshman class despite the university’s recruiting efforts. And the school’s consideration of race in admissions is facing a legal challenge in state court after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that upheld the practice.
The events in Charlottesville no doubt touched a nerve for Fenves, who is Jewish. His father is a Holocaust survivor, having been imprisoned in Auschwitz. Some of the far-right marchers in Charlottesville raised their arms in the Nazi salute and shouted anti-Jewish phrases.
UT was influenced in its early days by people who were sympathetic to the Confederacy, including George Littlefield, a Confederate officer, UT regent and benefactor who nearly 100 years ago commissioned the statues. The sculptor, Pompeo Coppini, expressed prescient misgivings, writing, “As time goes by, they will look to the Civil War as a blot on the pages of American history, and the Littlefield Memorial will be resented as keeping up the hatred between the Northern and Southern states.”
An advisory panel and a Student Government resolution had urged the UT president to remove the Davis statue at a time of reduced tolerance for Confederate symbols after the fatal shooting of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina.
Fenves said he has spoken with student leaders, students, faculty members, staff members and alumni in recent days to get their views after what he described as “the revelatory events in Charlottesville.” He said he also revisited the advisory panel’s 2015 report.
At the time he had Davis’ statue taken down, Fenves also removed a statue of President Woodrow Wilson, which stood opposite that of the Confederate leader, to maintain symmetry on the Main Mall. The Wilson statue is in storage, pending a decision on where to place it. The Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans tried unsuccessfully to get the courts to block the removal of Davis’ statue.
Kirk Lyons, the lawyer who represented the Sons of Confederate Veterans, condemned the university’s decision to remove the remaining statues.
“They are spitting on Littlefield’s grave. They should be ashamed of themselves,” Lyons said, pledging to round up support for demanding that state lawmakers cut off funding to UT until the statues are put back.
Gov. Greg Abbott said last week that removing Confederate monuments “won’t erase our nation’s past, and it doesn’t advance our nation’s future.” His office did not respond to a request for comment on UT’s action.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he agreed with Abbott.
“This political correctness of tearing down our history and erasing it as if it didn’t exist at all, especially on a university campus where there should be robust discussion of history, I think is troubling to a lot of people,” Patrick told radio station KYFO in Lubbock.
Measures that would have sharply limited a university’s authority to move statues did not advance in the Legislature’s regular and special sessions.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said, “Putting these statues in a history museum appropriately puts this past where it belongs.”
UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven said that “civility, unity and diversity must prevail, and the removal and relocation of the statues is an important step forward.”
Bernard Kaplan, a UT graduate who works in public relations in Houston, said the logical extension of UT’s move would be to rename the Littlefield House, the Littlefield Fountain and anything else on campus named for anyone with Confederate ties. That would be folly, and so is removing the statues, he said, adding, “Just showing the history we like is wrong.”
Jesus Castellano, an economics senior at UT, witnessed the statues’ removal and praised it.
“It puts UT in a position that says what is going on in Charlottesville is not OK, and we’re going to do something about it,” he said. “Our student body isn’t going to sit around and let things like Charlottesville happen.”