From the window of my office at the University of Texas at Austin, I can see the statue of Albert Sidney Johnston, a professional soldier who served in three armies: the Republic of Texas, the U.S., and the Confederate. Johnston’s is one of seven memorials that I have been walking past for more than forty years without ever reading the inscriptions. A couple of months ago, however, I decided to examine the monuments and the words etched upon them, though some are so faded that after a few more years of wear, erosion, and global warming, they won’t be legible at all. If the statues are still there.
For this year, as during recent ones, there are calls for the university to rid itself of these embarrassing nods to the Old South. This spring the controversy even spilled over to that citadel of reason, the Texas House of Representatives. CNN devoted some airtime to it, and for a few moments it became a national story. But it is here, on the campus of UT, where the issue will be resolved—or not.
The lightning rod of the statues, the rock star of opprobrium, is Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Before assuming that office, Davis was a colonel in the U.S. Army and the Secretary of War of the United States. One of the most colorful things Davis did, which is not mentioned on the statue, was to introduce camels into West Texas, on the theory that one desert is as good as another in the utilization of eco-correct animals. (The experiment failed; Texans in those days would not walk a mile for a camel.)
Another controversial statue is that of Robert E. Lee, who, following the Civil War, became the president of George Washington College. Before the war, Lee, along with Davis and Johnston, fought in the Mexican War, and he also served as the superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point. But Lee was the soul of the Confederacy, even though he freed his own slaves five years after inheriting them and even though he expressed opposition to slavery, in a letter to his wife, five years before the Civil War. No matter: According to the critics, Lee, Davis, Johnston, and John H. Reagan must go.
John H. who? I certainly didn’t know until I read his inscription. Reagan was the postmaster general of the Confederate States, and after the war he publicly called for Texans to renounce both slavery and secession. He was also the first chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas. If that doesn’t set your blood to boiling, I don’t know what does.
A fifth statue, which was installed in 1955, about two decades later than the others, is of George Washington. Like all the rest, Washington was a Southerner and a slave owner, but he gets a pass because he left a will that freed his slaves upon the death of himself and his wife. The only controversial thing about the Washington statue is that at a certain angle, the handle of his sword, held in a firm grip, is thought by some wags to resemble a physical attribute befitting the father of his country.
Two other statues on UT’s grassy knoll haven’t drawn any fire, so far as I know. Governor James Stephen Hogg—father of Ima, a noted UT benefactor, and the first native governor of Texas—was born too late to be tarred by the Civil War, and by all accounts he was one of the better, more progressive governors in Texas history, the list of which is not long. Woodrow Wilson was Mr. Everything in his day, including the president of Princeton University, the governor of New Jersey, and a two-term president of the United States. Among the criticism sometimes directed at Wilson is the fact that he allowed a viewing of The Birth of a Nation in the White House. (This kind of cherry-picking of the historical record makes everybody vulnerable; Abe Lincoln, the greatest secular saint in America, liked to tell racist jokes.) One of the accomplishments on Wilson’s stone CV, by the way, is “Founder of the League of Nations.” Talk about lost causes.
Exempting Washington, Hogg, and Wilson, that leaves the offending four, who are all there because of the Confederate loyalties of one man: George Washington Littlefield, an early regent of the university. His name survives today in the Littlefield Fountain at the southernmost part of the mall, at the opposite end from the Tower; in the Littlefield Home, a Victorian mansion of red brick and stone that sits on campus on Twenty-fourth Street; and in the Littlefield Building, in downtown Austin, one of the most celebrated historic structures in the city.
Littlefield grew up on a plantation and later owned slaves himself. During the Civil War he served under Albert Sidney Johnston and nearly died at the Battle of Mossy Creek (Johnston was killed at Shiloh, in 1862). During Reconstruction, Littlefield enjoyed great success in the new cattle industry in West Texas and made a ton of money in banking. As a regent, he wielded power and influence. His chief rival was another George Washington, George Washington Brackenridge. A Unionist whose brothers owned slaves, Brackenridge did not fight in the Civil War but instead spent those years making a fortune in the cotton trade in South Texas and, later, in banking. During his 27-year tenure as a regent of the university, he wanted UT to abandon its Southern connections.
The two men of opposing views and temperaments were at loggerheads over Littlefield’s support for developing a history curriculum that would emphasize the study of the South. Littlefield won, and he put his money where his loyalties were. At the urging of Eugene Barker, the chairman of the history department, Littlefield provided the cash to build up a collection that became the Littlefield Fund for Southern History. This is still the foundation of UT’s considerable holdings on the subject, to which major troves of African American history, from antebellum days to the civil rights movement of the sixties, have been added. Littlefield also paid for the Wrenn Collection in 1918, a major archival acquisition of British literature that became part of the legacy that Harry Huntt Ransom would later parlay into the world-renowned Humanities Research Center. The fact is that Littlefield was the biggest single donor in the crucial early history of the university.
Littlefield’s lasting legacy includes many good things—and the Southern problem. In his will, besides leaving large sums to the university (along with his house, which nobody has ever wanted torn down), he allocated money for memorializing the Confederacy. Over time the least offensive of these monuments proved to be the Littlefield Fountain, which was dedicated in 1933 “to the men and women of the Confederacy.” This strange mishmash of pseudoclassicism and World War I iconography has befuddled most viewers as to what it all might mean. In point of fact, the sculptor, Pompeo Coppini, had a clear idea of what he intended. The sculpture, he wrote, was designed “to prove that in World War I both North and South were solidly welded in one great nation, without Dixie Line distinction.” (One tip: Check out the headgear of the two strapping male figures on either side of the Goddess of Liberty.) To dramatize this reunion of the nation, Coppini intended to flank the fountain with the four Confederate “heroes” and Woodrow Wilson. But the grandiose plan was never realized, and a later architect, Paul Cret, distributed the statues to their present sites on the South Mall.
Criticism of the Confederate statues has been steady for a number of years, though it is hard to know how many official complaints have been lodged. The installation of a statue of Martin Luther King Jr., on the East Mall, was a step forward, and one of Barbara Jordan, which is coming soon, will be another positive move. But nothing short of the removal of the Confederate statues will satisfy critics such as Gary Bledsoe, the president of the NAACP’s Texas branch. Bledsoe’s position is shared by many African Americans. “Because if you cut it to its very essence,” he has commented, “what’s being said by the symbolism is that the Old South was right and slavery was okay.”
In 2004 Larry Faulkner, the president of the university at the time, responded to complaints by considering Coppini’s original plan to have the statues at the fountain, but for various reasons that never happened. Just this spring, Avrel Seale, the editor of the Alcalde, the Texas Exes alumni magazine, proposed removing the statues from campus altogether and placing them in the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, located on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the south (oops) edge of the campus. Seale also submitted a list of statues to replace the deposed. He would retain only Washington (a slaveholder) and the Littlefield Fountain (dedicated to Confederates).
Seale argues that his nominees all have something to do with UT, unlike several of the statues. But his first suggestion, Stephen F. Austin, had nothing to do with UT or even with the city of Austin. Plus, Austin supported slavery, politically if not personally; the families he brought in to settle Texas were, in the main, slave owners. It was Mirabeau B. Lamar, a much overlooked figure, who was instrumental in deciding that the Capitol would be located in a city named after the Father of Texas. Seale’s other nominees at least have UT connections, but there are problems with one of them: Governor Oran Roberts, who was in office when UT opened for business, in 1883, and who later taught at the university. But goodness, his Confederate credentials would surely arouse controversy. Roberts, after all, was president of the Secession Convention in 1860 and played a major role in leading Texas out of the Union. As for the other names, Harry Ransom already has a building named after him. Heman Sweatt, the first African American admitted to the law school, makes a lot of sense. But Seale’s list does not include a UT-based Mexican American, and this is a serious oversight. (Cesar Chavez, a statue of whom is in the works, does not count except generically, his and Jennifer Lopez’s being possibly the only Hispanic names recognizable to large segments of the student population.) If we are to have new statues, I nominate one dedicated to Américo Paredes, the distinguished folklorist, professor, and author who taught English and anthropology at the university for many years.
“History has many cunning passages,” wrote T. S. Eliot, and Texas and the university are tied to the South, like it or not. But while I’m at it, here are some other suggestions for solving UT’s persistent Southern discomfort. First of all, we have to get rid of references to the Forty Acres, because this phrase echoes a conflicted bit of Southern history: the forty acres and a mule that were promised to blacks in Southern states following the Civil War. Spike Lee’s production company is called 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, and rappers riff on the phrase all the time. As for the statues themselves—those erections lasting more than four decades—and the rest of the campus, here are my own heartfelt proposals:
1. Turn the Tower and the Main Building 180 degrees so that instead of facing south, UT would look toward Oklahoma.
2. Replace all representational statues on campus—99 percent of the total statuary—with abstract sculptures that no one would have anything to say about, like an outdoor Bauhaus exhibition.
3. Change all the inscriptions on the existing statues. Thus Jefferson Davis could become Mirabeau B. Lamar, and so on. Trust me, nobody would ever know the difference.