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Mythology around Confederate John Reagan gives incomplete picture

Since the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., people around the country have been debating the display of Confederate namesakes and symbols with new fervor.

This weekend in Austin, the University of Texas followed through on plans to remove a statue of Jefferson Davis, but keep statues of Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John H. Reagan. The Austin school district is currently contemplating changing the names of several schools named for Confederates, including Robert E. Lee Elementary and John H. Reagan High.

Lee is well-known nationally, but few people know much about Reagan. A myth about him has been repeated during public forums at UT, at school district meetings, and in the Statesman: That, although he served as postmaster general of the Confederacy, he was actually a moderate who after the Civil War encouraged his fellow Texans to cooperate with the federal government, renounced slavery and secession, and advocated allowing freed slaves to vote. It is also pointed out that Reagan served in the U.S. Senate after the Civil War and as the first railroad commissioner of Texas, implying that he “made good” after the war and was reformed.

This is a misinformed view of Reagan: He was an unrepentant defender of secession and white supremacy until the end of his life.

As postmaster general, Reagan was part of Jefferson Davis’ cabinet and therefore was part of the central decision-making of the Confederacy. Furthermore, as the longest surviving member of the Confederate cabinet, Reagan became a spokesperson for the myth of the Lost Cause, giving speeches that defended and justified secession, such as one at the meeting of the United Confederate Veterans in Fort Worth on April 19, 1903. Rather than renouncing the aims of the Confederacy, he became one of the key voices keeping its ideology alive into the 20th century.

Reagan’s views on black voting rights after the war has also been misrepresented. What he advocated after the Civil War was a cynical approach to appeasing Union demands in order to minimize the impacts of emancipation in Texas. In page 227 of his 1906 memoir, he maintained that the “elevation of the slaves to all the dignities of citizenship” was an “evil” that needed to be prevented; what he advocated was “to make such concessions [to the Union] as we would inevitably be required to make … to save us from universal negro suffrage.” Rather than advocating voting rights for blacks, Reagan wanted to minimize them.

He first outlined this position in a letter he wrote while imprisoned in Boston’s Fort Warren at the end of the war. The letter explains in detail how black disenfranchisement could be accomplished: “By fixing an intellectual and moral, and, if thought advisable, a property test, for the admission of all persons to the exercise of the elective franchise, without reference to race or color.” By doing so, “no person now entitled to the privilege of voting should be deprived of it by any new test.” In other words, he proposed crafting laws in such a way as to prevent blacks — but not whites — from exercising the right to vote. Reagan’s approach was exactly the one white supremacists were able to put in place across the South following Reconstruction, when African-Americans were systematically disenfranchised through “literacy tests” and poll taxes. And it was exactly this route that led directly to the need for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Far from being reformed, Reagan continued to defend the actions and ideology of the Confederacy to the end of his life, and helped lay the groundwork for key tenets of post-reconstruction white supremacy in Texas, most notably the denial of voting rights to blacks.

Reagan, while an influential politician in 19th and 20th century Texas, is not worthy of the honor of having an educational institution named for him. He does not represent the values or ideals of Austin, the Austin Independent School District or the state of Texas.

Heyman is an urban studies lecturer at the University of Texas.

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