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The Return of Jefferson Davis

Over a year after its removal from the University of Texas at Austin’s Main Mall, the controversial Jefferson Davis statue has found a new home on campus.

By June 2017Comments

The Jefferson Davis statue on display at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, in Austin, on April 5, 2017.
Photograph by Callie Richmond

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

But instead of looking perpetually southward from its former place of prominence, the nine-foot-tall, 2,000-pound former president of the Confederate States of America now resides at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, where he casts a fixed gaze westward, through a window and out over the LBJ Presidential Library’s fountain—albeit with a view partially obstructed by some display cases and low-hanging tree limbs.

The statue was originally commissioned in the late 1910s by George Littlefield as part of what was to be a Civil War and World War I memorial. Littlefield, a rancher, banker, UT regent, and veteran of the Confederate Army’s famed Terry’s Texas Rangers, once referred to Davis as “the greatest man the South ever produced.” To honor his hero, he hired famed Italian sculptor Pompeo Coppini to create the likeness.

In 1924, the statue of Davis was cast in, of all places, Brooklyn, and the finished bronze was shipped to Galveston and then sent by train to Austin. It debuted at the American National Bank, located in the same Littlefield Building that still stands at the corner of Sixth Street and Congress Avenue. A year later, the statue was moved up the street to the Capitol and stayed there until 1933, when it was unveiled on the Forty Acres.

Coppini would later express regret about commemorating the Confederacy. “As time goes by,” he wrote in his memoir, “[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.” For its first few decades on the UT campus, the statue stood mostly unnoticed (except by countless pigeons and grackles). But Coppini was eventually proved right. Over the years, the statue would become the object of occasional controversy and vandalism, and during the nineties and early aughts, campus activists, citing Davis’s racist actions, began protesting against it with greater intensity. Rallies were held, op-eds appeared in the Daily Texan, and there were more frequent incidents of defacement. Yet none of these actions effected even a bit of budging.

But in March 2015, a consequential series of events began to unfold. The first was the election of two 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 the wide-ranging promises of bringing a Chili’s restaurant to campus and the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue. And though Rotnofsky and Mandalapu had originally intended their candidacies as a humorous 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.

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 a 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.

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.)

The group made its recommendations in August: either relocate the statues or update them with explanatory plaques. President Fenves ordered the Davis statue, the most controversial of the lot, to be removed immediately to UT’s Briscoe Center for American History. “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,” he said in an official statement. “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 brought suit, claiming that UT needed approval from the State Preservation Board, the Texas Historical Commission, or the Legislature to relocate the statue. They also argued that, in accordance with 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 2015 its public spaces were closed for an eighteen-month renovation that, among other improvements, expanded the reading room and added four thousand square feet of new exhibit space. When the center reopened, in April, 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: “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.” The point is brought home by the fact that Davis’s new environs, while not at all shabby, 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, where he contributes to the website Funny or Die 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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