The University of Texas’ reputation for being among the finest universities in the world is born at least in part to its commitment to diversity. Until Monday, however, a stroll through the school’s main lawn brought reminders of the South’s complicated history, a past entwined with the ugliness of Jim Crow, segregation and slavery.
Now some of those reminders are gone. At last.
Statues of Confederate war leaders that for decades occupied prominent space on the university’s iconic South Mall will have a new, more appropriate home at the Briscoe Center for American History on campus. Here, in a place where they can be preserved and studied, is where they belong.
Removing the statutes of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston, Confederate Postmaster John Reagan and James Stephen Hogg, the first native-born governor of Texas and the son of a Confederate general, from the campus was long overdue. A world-class, inclusive campus where 40 percent of students are Hispanic, Asian- and African-American is no place for divisive symbols of hate and oppression.
With little public notice, UT President Gregory L. Fenves called for removal of the statues late Sunday night, just days after white supremacists and neo-Nazis rallied against the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Va. One counterprotester was killed and numerous others injured when a man rammed his car into a large crowd.
“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.” Fenves is right.
With Charlottesville fresh on the minds of Americans, communities across the nation — including Austin and Central Texas — are reconsidering the messages Confederate monuments in public places convey.
Most Confederate statues and monuments – including those dedicated in 1933 on University of Texas grounds — were erected to commemorate the resurgence of white supremacy, experts note. Confederate monuments and markers were mostly established during two bursts — one from the 1890s into the 1920s, when “separate-but-equal” laws were established, and again in the 1950s and 1960s, as civil rights advances eroded those laws. A majority lack contextual historical information. Many inaccurately claim Confederate leaders fought in the Civil War to defend state rights when, really, their main reason was to preserve the deplorable institution of slavery. To be sure, these statues were meant to intimidate.
For almost as long, activists across the country have rallied for the removal of such monuments. Confederate apologists have argued – as President Donald Trump did recently — that removing Confederate monuments will erase part of our nation’s history.
History books and museums will always provide facts about the Confederate leaders who rejected the United States’ doctrine of the equality of all men and women and took arms to defend a state’s right to maintain and protect slavery. And the declarations of secession issued by Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and other Southern states will always stand as evidence of the causes of the Civil War.
History should not be erased. A war that threatened our nation’s existence should be remembered — if only to derive lessons from the wrongs that were committed. The goal is not to literally remove all signs of the Confederacy, but to stop glorifying those who fought to perpetuate slavery.
Consider that the Confederate statues at the University of Texas, from the time of their inception, have represented the vision of Confederate apologist George W. Littlefield — a Confederate soldier, prominent banker and initially the school’s largest benefactor. Littlefield was a strong advocate of keeping the university an all-white institution.
The statues have never been fully embraced by the university’s community. For years, they have been the targets of vandalism and the focus of debate and protests.
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In 2015, in step with a national movement, a UT student-government resolution called for the removal of all Confederate symbols from campus after a white supremacist killed nine black parishioners at a Charleston, South Carolina church. As a result, an inscription honoring the Confederacy and Southern pride was removed from the South Mall and a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was moved to the Briscoe Center, where soon the statues of Lee, Johnston and Reagan will also reside. The Hogg statue will be installed at a campus site yet to be selected, according to university officials.
As part of the Briscoe collection, the bronze statues can be studied and given accurate historical context.
By relocating such divisive symbols, school officials can better focus on overcoming the university’s long-fought struggles with systemic racism and integration.
“Civility, unity and diversity must prevail — and the removal and relocation of the statues is an important step forward,” UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven said after the statues were removed from the South Mall.
We couldn’t agree more.