- By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz American-Statesman Staff
Statues of Jefferson Davis and Woodrow Wilson were removed Sunday from the limestone pedestals at the University of Texas on which they have stood for 82 years.
“This is an iconic moment. It really shows the power of student leadership,” said Gregory Vincent, UT’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, referring to a Student Government resolution that called for removing the statue of Davis, president of the Confederate states, from its prominent setting on the university’s Main Mall.
The larger-than-life-size Davis statue and the equally imposing statue of Wilson, the nation’s 28th president, which had stood opposite that of Davis on the mall, were loaded onto a flatbed trailer to be hauled by a pickup to UT’s facilities complex just east of Interstate 35 for refurbishing.
The Davis statue will be installed in 18 months or so in UT’s Briscoe Center for American History after the center is renovated, and Wilson’s will be placed at a yet-to-be-decided outdoor location on campus, according to university officials.
UT announced that it would remove the statues from their pedestals on the Main, or South, Mall after the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans failed to get traction Friday at the state Supreme Court with a last-ditch effort to block the plan.
About 50 people turned out to watch the removal of the Davis statue, according to a spokeswoman for the UT Police Department.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Sandra Bieri, a 1961 UT graduate and retired law firm librarian. “It’s overdue.”
Kirk Lyons, the Confederate group’s lawyer, said he would press on with a legal fight to return “Brother Jeff” and “Brother Woodrow,” as he calls them, to the mall. He said UT’s action amounts to “ISIS-style cleansing of history,” a reference to the Islamic State group’s destruction of statues and other cultural artifacts in the Mideast.
When UT President Gregory L. Fenves announced his decision earlier this month to move the statues, he said it was no longer in the university’s best interest to memorialize the Confederate leader on the Main Mall. Because of the Confederacy’s effort to preserve slavery, it had been vandalized numerous times over the years, most recently in June when the words “black lives matter” were painted on its base.
It took workers about an hour and a half to remove the Davis statue from its pedestal, a procedure they began by wrapping the bronze likeness in plastic. Straps were used to attach the statue to the padded prongs of a heavy-duty forklift.
The work was done by UT’s contractor, Austin-based Vault Fine Art Services. The company’s co-owner and project manager, J. Patrick Sheehy, operated the forklift as well as a saw that he used to cut pins attaching the statue’s bronze base to the limestone pedestal. The same procedure was used to lift the Wilson statue.
Although opposition to the Davis statue surfaced even before it was installed in 1933, the tipping point came this summer with a confluence of events: the Student Government resolution, recommendations from an advisory panel and reduced national tolerance for Confederate symbols after the fatal shooting of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina. The issue had special resonance for UT, which didn’t admit blacks until it was forced to do so in 1950 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
UT was influenced in its early days by sympathizers with the Confederacy, including George Washington Littlefield, a Confederate officer, regent and benefactor who nearly 100 years ago commissioned the statues of Davis, Wilson and four other people, all of which were arrayed along the Main Mall, a long stretch of paved plaza, sidewalks, grass and live oaks with a fountain at its southern tip.
Interestingly, Pompeo Coppini, the sculptor commissioned by Littlefield, expressed 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.”
Fenves decided against moving statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston, Confederate Postmaster John H. Reagan and James Stephen Hogg, the first native-born governor of Texas and the son of a Confederate general. The four had deeper ties to Texas than did Davis, Fenves said.