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Jefferson Davis is Back at UT

After being removed from the University of Texas at Austin’s Main Mall, the Jefferson Davis statue has found a new home on campus.

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After removal from the Main Mall of the University of Texas at Austin, the controversial Jefferson Davis statue now is displayed at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.
Photograph by Callie Richmond

Nineteen months after being forklifted off its limestone plinth on the University of Texas at Austin’s Main Mall, placed in the back of pickup, and hauled off, the controversial Jefferson Davis statue is back on campus.

But instead of casting a fixed gaze southward over Austin from its former place of prominence, the 9-foot-tall, 1,200-pound former president of the Confederate States of America now resides at the Briscoe Center for American History, where he looks westward, past some display cases, through a window, and out over the LBJ Presidential Library’s fountain—albeit with a view partially obstructed by low-hanging tree limbs.

The statue was originally commissioned in the 1920s by George Littlefield as part of what was to be a larger Confederate memorial. Littlefield, a rancher, banker, UT regent, and veteran of the Confederate Army’s famed Terry’s Texas Rangers who had fought at Shiloh, Perryville, and Chickamauga, was a fan of Davis, and once referred to him as “the greatest man the South ever produced.” He hired famed Italian sculptor Pompeo Coppini to create the likeness.

In 1924, the statue was cast in, of all places, Brooklyn, New York, and the finished bronze was then shipped to Galveston before making its way by train to Austin. Davis debuted at the American National Bank, located in the same Littlefield Building that still stands at the corner of Sixth Street and Congress Avenue in downtown Austin. In 1925, the statue was moved up the street to the Capitol and stayed there until 1933, when it made its way to the Forty Acres.

Coppini had argued against a larger Confederate memorial. “As time goes by,” he said, people “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.” But for its first few decades on the UT campus, the statue stood mostly unnoticed (except by numerous pigeons and grackles). Coppini was right. Over the years, Davis would become the object of occasional controversy and vandalism, and during the 1990s and early 2000s, campus activists, citing Davis’s racist actions, began protesting against the statue with greater intensity. Rallies were held, op-eds appeared in the Daily Texan, and there were more frequent incidences of  vandalism. Yet none of these actions effected even a bit of budging.

 

But in March 2015, a consequential series of events began to unfold on campus and around the world. The first was the election of a pair of editors from UT’s satire magazine, the Texas Travesty, as president and vice president of UT’s Student Government. The unlikely ticket of Xavier Rotnofsky and Rohit Mandalapu had campaigned on such wide-ranging promises as bringing a Chili’s restaurant to campus and the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue. Though Rotnofsky and Mandalapu had originally intended their candidacies as a stunt, once in office they took their duties seriously. The pair drafted a resolution calling for the statue’s removal and the Student Government passed it almost unanimously. The Chili’s resolution, if one was ever written up, did not realize the same success.

Photograph by Callie Richmond

Then, on the evening of June 17, 2015, nine black people were massacred at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. As the racist motives behind the horrific shooting were revealed and images of the perpetrator posing with Confederate flag were disseminated, the focus on publicly displayed Confederate symbols, including the Davis statue on UT’s campus, sharpened. Calls for their removal, now bull-horned across social media, intensified greatly.

That same month, responding to the student government’s action and the loudening outcry, newly-hired UT president Greg Fenves put together a twelve-member advisory panel consisting of students, professors, and alumni to evaluate the contextual appropriateness of the Jefferson Davis statue, as well as a handful of other statues of notable Confederates. [Full disclosure: the panel included Texas Monthly’s general counsel, Laura Beckworth.]

In July, the Confederate flag that had flown over South Carolina’s statehouse in Columbia for 54 years was permanently removed.

The UT advisory panel made its recommendations in August: either relocate the statues or update them with explanatory plaques. President Fenves, just two months into his presidency, ordered the Davis statue, the most controversial of the lot, to be removed immediately. “I have decided that the best location for the Jefferson Davis statue is UT’s Briscoe Center for American History,” he said in an official statement. “While every historical figure leaves a mixed legacy, I believe Jefferson Davis is in a separate category, and that it is not in the university’s best interest to continue commemorating him on our Main Mall. Davis had few ties to Texas; he played a unique role in the history of the American South that is best explained and understood through an educational exhibit.”

The decision was met with applause from supporters and harrumphs from detractors. The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued UT in an attempt to prevent the removal. The Sons claimed that UT needed approval from the State Preservation Board, the Texas Historical Commission, and the Legislature to relocate the statue. They also argued that, in accordance with George Littlefield’s last wishes, the statues had to stay put. The Sons failed in court.

Davis’s arrival at the Briscoe is part of a major relaunch of the center. In the fall of 2015, the center closed its public spaces for an 18-month renovation that updated and expanded the reading room and added 4,000 square feet of new exhibit space. When the center reopened earlier this month, the general public was able to view its inaugural exhibit, “Exploring the American South,” which pairs well with the Davis statue exhibit, “From Commemoration to Education.” A large label with the heading “#DavisMustFall” affixed to the wall to the right of the statue makes the case for Davis’s reemergence at the center: “By moving the statue of Jefferson Davis to the Briscoe Center, it is preserved as historical evidence and as an original work of art. However, the statue’s presence in an educational exhibit—as opposed to a place of honor on campus—underlines the fact that Davis, as well as many of his ideas and actions, are no longer commemorated or endorsed by the university.” (A point brought home by the fact that Davis’s new environs are rather small and cramped, compared to his former, more spacious accommodations.)

“The statue has been taken out of its place of honor and appropriately refurbished as an educational tool,” says Rotnofsky, who now lives in Los Angeles and occasionally produces commercials for a Texas-based hot sauce company. “Jeff’s removal is a testament to student activism—none of this would have happened without the support of thousands of students. Mission accomplished.”

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  • St. Anger

    Ironically (?), the Littlefield name is still honored prominently at UT.

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    • Ron

      Yep a proud Confederate.

      • [email protected]

        me too- my great-great grandfather was the lawyer(well one of them) who drafted the Ordinance of Secession in the first place,his wife,Mrs Sophronia Lucia Palmer Hutson,worked with a Southern abolitionist by the name of Secunda Grimke(Underground Railroad ring a bell?)teaching slaves to read-which i think took guts back in the day in South Carolina! so i’m proud of Col.Hutson,his wife AND my greatgrandfather who fought in Hampton’s Legion at Manassas,survived Ft.Delaware,and lived to father 10 children and teach history at Texas A&M

    • [email protected]

      LOL,the deity has a sense of humor,or humans are just funny!

  • Sondra Catlett May

    The removal of Jefferson Davis Statue was wrong, and a show of ignorance from the ones pushing the agenda! U.T
    Is just another University guilty of P.C. madness buckling with weakness! Jefferson Davis should be returned to stand with honor, exactly where his Donor intended…(Out with Liberal Professors)

    • [email protected]

      yes this is what parents pay for when they send their kids to UT these days i guess

  • Shawn Patrick Feagin

    jefferson davis statue save lot of lives on AUGUST 1 1966 CHARLES WHITMAN

    • [email protected]

      Yep

  • David Gass

    Could you possibly have written a tackier article (apparently you tried your best), David Courtney? How did Temple produce such a sorry excuse for a Texan? If your Southern heritage is such an embarrassment to you, perhaps somewhere like Ohio would be a better fit.

    • Evan Williams

      Nothing says Southern heritage more like rewriting history to paint losers, traitors, and slavers in a positive light. Maybe we don’t want folks like you to keep this state an idiotic shithole.

      • [email protected]

        your bias is glaringly evident- but it hasn’t the effect you seem to want-Confederates were most certainly not traitors,not man,woman nor child;they were passionately patriotic for their country! are you so ignorant you’ve forgotten the origin of the United States? 13 states rebelling against Great Britain? the thirteen states that eventually comprised the Confederate States of America felt the same-they were fighting tyranny

      • David Gass

        Traitors and slavers, you say? All slaves came over in ships flying the flag of other nations, including England, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and of course, the United States of America. The Constitution defines treason as one who makes war on the States. That would be Lincoln and his cronies. As for losers, when Lincoln destroyed the original voluntary union of States, the Original Republic, ALL Americans were losers, except I guess you ignorant loonies who really dont have much clue what happened.

    • [email protected]

      well said,sir!

  • eddieinman

    It seems Mr. Courtney fancies himself some sort of humorist. The opinion is not shared.

  • Blank Stare

    Nice write up. It’s important to preserve our cultural heritage—both the good and the bad—but it’s also important to contextualize it.

    • [email protected]

      yes but usually those that say “contextualize”do not begin to understand the truth of what the Confederacy stood for;even at the time there was an understanding that Union victory would result in power going from the states to the central government in DC

  • Mary Stevens

    Leave it alone. The war was about more than slavery. Lincoln said that he would not free any slaves as long as the South remained. Then, all they had to do was stay in the Union. The North was afraid to lose the South as a customer, their taxes and didn’t want to compete with the South being an exporter.

    • Evan Williams

      Shut up and stop rewriting history. It was about slavery, end of story.

      • [email protected]

        and you are wrong.End of story

    • [email protected]

      Thank you Mary;at least SOME one around here knows the truth; the Morrill Tariff,the very real fear of diminishing representation as the whole county expanded westward;thirty (and more) years of slights against the South as a whole,all these,combined with a desire to deal with the “peculiar institution” in their own fashion,to culminate in my ancestors exercising their Constitutional right to disengage;the other states soon followed suit…and the rest is history.

  • [email protected]

    and thus the ignorant prevail,patting themselves on the back! i have my own beefs with Mr.Davis,but it is hard to compare him as he was the Confederacy’s only president. Is Texas now to pretend it never seceded? how about telling the whole story,about Sam Houston wanted her to stay in the Union,about how Texas came to secede,and why instead of simply reverting to being its own Republic,it chose to join forces with the Confederacy?

  • KGW

    Racist? Jefferson Davis adopted a black child, Jim Limber. Mrs. Davis rescued the child from an abuser on a Richmond street. Jim was taken from him when he was arrested. No word on what happened to Jim after, although some believe the federals killed him. Which would be a common act as many people of color were killed, raped, and assaulted by federal troops as they burned and pillaged their way through the south.

  • Jack R.

    Remember students repeatedly putting empty soda cans in his upturned hand back in the late 60’s when I attended. Other than that, never gave it much thought. More interesting was the statue of Hogg, and the story of him naming his two daughters Ima and Ura.