Statues, the best of them, have a puzzling power. They cast a spell of stillness. The placid, unassertive way a bronze figure stands there, gazing out at some middle distance, creates an illusion that it has assumed control of the space around it.
That’s why it’s odd to watch a statue come down, either in the heat of passion, with people prying it loose with ropes and chains and crowbars, or in the much more orderly way the long-standing Texas Ranger statue at Dallas’s Love Field was removed and carted away one morning this June. You can watch the process on a sped-up video that was posted on the internet afterward. The eight-foot-tall statue, dedicated in 1961 as the Texas Ranger of Today, depicts an idealized lawman striding toward what we assume to be a restive crowd, his right hand ready to draw the gun in his holster, his left raised slightly in a gesture signaling a plea for calmness and reason.
In the video, a city work crew in yellow T-shirts and hard hats bustles around the statue in the airport’s main lobby, installing straps under its shoulders and unfastening it from the granite base incised with the law enforcement agency’s semiofficial, semi-apocryphal motto “One Riot, One Ranger.” The airport, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, has a sepulchral emptiness. There are few witnesses, of whom the least aware is the statue itself. As the Ranger is hoisted up off his base into the air and a swarm of workers sets him down onto a dolly cart and rolls him away, he appears eerily compliant, a bystander to his own exile.
He’s not alone, nor will he be. We’re living in a time of convulsive reconsideration over what should be valued and what should be honored—which monuments to our country’s imperfect past can be deemed fit to remain. In 2015 two works by the Italian-born but eminently Texan sculptor Pompeo Coppini—statues of Woodrow Wilson and Confederate president Jefferson Davis—were removed from the South Mall at the University of Texas at Austin campus and hauled away on a flatbed trailer. The statues were part of an eclectic verging on random grouping that had lined the mall for more than eighty years, and that most UT students had likely passed by for decades between classes without ever looking at or thinking about. Those who did care about them were likely to be people who found their presence insulting and enraging and wanted them gone. For Black students in particular, these heroic likenesses of figures like Davis or his generals Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston represented a stinging provocation.
It was a provocation so familiar to UT history professor Daina Ramey Berry, the author of books on slavery and the history of Black women, that when she arrived on campus in 2010, her first reaction to seeing the statues was more puzzlement than offense.
“I’m not surprised to see a statue celebrating a Confederate general—there are so many of them,” she told me. But she couldn’t quite figure out why these particular statues were there, since their subjects had tenuous connections at best to UT or, in some cases, to the state of Texas.
She would discover, as a member of a university task force that was created in 2015 to advise what should be done with the statues, that those isolated figures on the South Mall were the remnants of Coppini’s dream of a grand sculptural statement. In his mind, the completed work would symbolize the reunification of the United States after the Civil War and “the perpetual flowing of American patriotism and American enlightenment.” But his vision of a harmonious grouping of great men unraveled. He and Major George Littlefield, the Confederate veteran and UT regent who funded the commission, had a falling-out that led to the university reconceiving the whole project and leaving it, to use Coppini’s word, “dismembered.”
Late on a Sunday night in August of 2017, about a week after the Unite the Right protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, had turned ugly and deadly, the four remaining statues on the mall—Lee, Johnston, Confederate postmaster John H. Reagan, and Texas governor James Hogg—were removed. The Jefferson Davis statue eventually reappeared as a cautionary exhibit at UT’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. The statue of Hogg—a more-or-less progressive nineteenth-century governor who didn’t quite belong in what had come to be seen as a rogues’ gallery of white supremacy—was removed because it would have looked weird standing there alone among all those naked pedestals. It was eventually relocated elsewhere on campus, but the rest of the grouping was sent into storage limbo.
For Black students in particular, the heroic likenesses of figures like Confederate president Jefferson Davis or his generals Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston represented a stinging provocation.
A few weeks after Coppini’s statues came down, an equestrian bronze of Robert E. Lee by Alexander Phimister Proctor that had been the centerpiece of Lee Park in Dallas since 1936 was removed by city work crews, sold at auction to an Addison lawyer for $1.4 million, and later reerected on the putting green of a Lajitas golf course.
“People thought of stone as ageless,” muses the sculptor hero of my 2011 novel Remember Ben Clayton, “but nothing lasted as long as bronze, nothing stood so strong against the tide of time.”
That’s what my fictional sculptor, Francis “Gil” Gilheaney, desperately wants to believe. But near the beginning of the book, one of his statues, to his mind the most enduring, is destroyed by rioters during the “Red Summer” of 1919, when racial animus flared up all across the country into lethal unrest. His statue is of a Plains Indian. It has no direct relevance to the events at hand: a white mob’s determination to lynch a Black man accused of rape and held prisoner in the courthouse. But to a crowd consumed by all-purpose racial hatred, there’s no distinction.
In the book, Gil pleads with the mob and even tries to fight them off, but he can’t prevent them from prying the statue off its base and attacking it with sledgehammers. “They were going to pound it into bits and there was nothing he could do. It was just a pile of metal that had been defaced and seized by a mob, of no more concern to them than the windows they were smashing or the building they had set aflame, just a piece of junk that its creator had tried haplessly to defend.”
As my character discovers in the novel, and as our society has made clear over the past few years, bronze is not an immutable metal after all. It can’t stand up to the erosion of old values or the rise of new ones. Just like everything else, it has an expiration date.
I love statues. They’re the first things I seek out in a new city, the things I return to again and again in a familiar one. I love their eerie verisimilitude and the way they command their surroundings as if nature itself rather than long-dead pooh-bahs had decreed them into being. I’m haunted as only a nonartist can be by the mystery of how a great sculptor can precisely re-create faces and forms in a way that suggests both profound silence and brimming animation. And I deeply respond to the way that, like ancient ruins or still-standing buildings from another human era, a statue can burst through the fabric of present time and stand before you as an artifact from a world that once was.
An unholy world, much of it, when you look at our nation’s history through an honest lens. And in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, that lens has become crystal sharp.
When the conversation about pulling down Confederate monuments began to heat up a few years ago, my instinctive response was that the solution to the problem lay in more statues, not fewer. Leave the Confederates in place as a historical demonstration of what Texas had once chosen to honor, but fill in the landscape with bronze testaments to people whose humanity had been sidelined or whose stories had been suppressed. Robert E. Lee would still be mounted on Traveller in Lee Park (recently renamed Turtle Creek Park), but he would have to share Texas with Black Reconstruction leaders like George Ruby or Matthew Gaines, Tejano heroes like José Antonio Navarro or Jovita Idár, female disrupters of the status quo like Minnie Fisher Cunningham or Bessie Coleman, and Indigenous resistance leaders like Quanah Parker or Satanta.
But this sort of contextualize-our-history-but-don’t-erase-it solution was the autoimmune response of someone who had grown up with the luxury of regarding statues as neutral works of art and not as chronic taunts. Week upon week of tumultuous racial reckoning in our cities had begun to make what I thought was an eminently reasonable argument sound defensive and feeble. It was one thing to be aware of the outrage Black people might feel living in the shadow of a towering monument to a man who fought to enslave their ancestors; it was another thing to be made aware of it night after night on television and in the streets of my own city—and to be prodded by conscience to choose sides in a personal war between my aesthetic preoccupations and an age-old injustice I had never been forced to experience. When it came to Confederate statues, there was a point at which standing up for history felt too much like standing in the way of it.
“To me,” Daina Berry told me, “taking down statues means we are now ready to move on and usher in change, to usher in a new mindset. When the Berlin Wall came down, that was a significant moment in history. What we’re experiencing right now with the recent unrest is likewise a flash point in history.”
The Texas Ranger statue at Love Field was not a Confederate monument. It did not commemorate a time when Texas seceded from the United States and fought a war against it to preserve—as the state made clear in its Declaration of Causes against the Union—“the servitude of the African to the white race.” It was, if you took it simply on the terms of its own presentation, a salute to the sort of temperate law enforcement our society is now clamoring to achieve. The Ranger was alone and exposed, not wedged in ranks behind a riot shield. He had a cowboy hat instead of a helmet, a holstered pistol instead of tear gas canisters and flashbang grenades. What you noticed most about the statue was his calming hand.
But the legacy of the Rangers is far more complex than the statue implied. Its title, Texas Ranger of Today, may have been an attempt to put some distance between the shiny new decade of the sixties and the dark but not especially distant past in which Rangers had casually murdered Tejanos and Mexicans along the Rio Grande border or been deployed as the enforcement arm of segregation. Indeed, the model for the statue had been a Ranger captain named E. J. “Jay” Banks, who had appeared in Mansfield in 1956 to keep order during an attempt to integrate the local high school. His way of keeping order had nothing to do with protecting the Black students who were trying to enroll—it was to intimidate them into giving up.
The statue wasn’t of Banks; he was just its model. But the associations were close enough, and the historical echoes were deep and disturbing. There had been calls for the statue to come down dating back to at least 1992, but the publicity surrounding Doug J. Swanson’s recent book Cult of Glory, whose dust jacket promised “a twenty-first century reckoning” with the Texas Ranger legacy, pointedly including “atrocities, brutality, oppression, and corruption,” convinced the officials at Love Field that the time had come.
So the Ranger came off his pedestal and was wheeled away. But there was another legacy behind the statue, that of the sculptor, Waldine Tauch. In this feverish moment of accounting, when monuments are falling all across the country and the world, maybe we can spare a thought for artists like her whose ambitions were bright, whose efforts were mighty, but whose works ended up being overrun by history.
When it came to Confederate statues, there was a point at which standing up for history felt too much like standing in the way of it.
Tauch was eighteen years old, bird-thin, and five feet tall when she boarded a train in 1910 from her hometown of Brady to travel to San Antonio. The women of the Brady Tuesday Club had noticed her incipient talent and had arranged and paid for her to study under Pompeo Coppini and to live with the sculptor and his wife, Lizzie. Tauch came from a family in turmoil. Her father was a failed photographer with a drinking problem. Her unstable mother once attempted to kill herself in front of her daughter by slashing her own throat with a butcher knife.
In Coppini, Tauch encountered an imperious and controlling teacher who thought women didn’t have the physical strength or the artistic conviction to be monumental sculptors. But he was wrong about her. “While other girls dreamed of boys,” she remembered, “I envisioned my statues in parks and plazas.” She won Coppini over by enduring his demanding, dismissive assessments of her work and surprised him by proving herself capable of the grunt work that went into the creation of a larger-than-life-size statue—the assembly of massive armatures out of scrap lumber and pipe, the endless Sorcerer’s Apprentice–style lugging of heavy buckets of the wet clay used to model the figures.
Over time they became colleagues and collaborators, and Coppini grew so fond of Tauch, and so regally possessive of her, that he tried to adopt her—to the outrage of her still-living parents. In the end, she became a “foster” daughter to the childless Coppinis, inherited their home and studio when they died, and upon her own death, in 1986, was interred between them at the foot of the elaborate bas-relief tombstone that the great sculptor designed for himself, in San Antonio’s Sunset Memorial Park.
Her career did not turn out to be quite as expansive or imposing as her mentor’s, but several of her works, like a looming statue of Moses Austin in front of San Antonio’s city hall, and especially Love Field’s Texas Ranger, became part of the background visuals of urban Texas. Her first public commission, installed in San Antonio in 1914, when she was 22, was a bas-relief drinking fountain on the Commerce Street Bridge called The First Inhabitant that depicts a Native American man holding bowls of life-giving water in each hand. It’s still there, more than a century later, no longer an active drinking fountain and probably rarely remarked upon by the pedestrians who stroll in front of it every day but who still might feel an uneasy absence if it were to disappear.
Coppini was a model for my novel’s fictional sculptor, Francis Gilheaney. And Tauch, Coppini’s foster daughter, helped inspire the daughter I invented for my protagonist. I even gave her a public commission, called Spirit of the Waters, that I placed on the same spot where First Inhabitant stands.
Tauch was also the first monumental sculptor I ever met. I interviewed her in 1984 for an article I was writing for this magazine about Coppini. We met at the maestro’s former studio in San Antonio, which by then had turned into the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts, of which Waldine Tauch was president emeritus. She was 92, almost blind, cordial but direct. My focus was on the man who had guided and commandeered so much of her career, but I wish now I had thought to widen the lens of the story and ask her more questions about her own life. “Sculpture was something inside him,” she told me about Coppini, a remark that was defining of her own life as well. “He loved it with all his heart and soul.”
It’s hard for me to imagine the pain she would have felt to know that her signature work, the Texas Ranger, would one day be so out of phase with the times that it could no longer stand.
Well, maybe it’s not that hard. I’m not a sculptor, but almost thirty years ago, long before statues began coming down in this country, I helped start a group that was determined to put them up. We called ourselves CAST, a consciously imprecise acronym for Capital Area Statues, Inc.
This all came about because my friend, the author and journalist Lawrence Wright, who shared my unfashionable fondness for statues, decided to start a nonprofit group to rectify what he considered the paucity and stodginess of Austin’s sculptural landscape. Larry even had an idea for our first project: a statue of three old white men jabbering on a rock. It was to be a depiction of the old guard of Texas letters, J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb, who used to congregate at Austin’s Barton Springs for an alfresco literary salon around a half-submerged boulder. Somehow, the little group we put together managed to convince a celebrated sculptor, the late Glenna Goodacre, to take a chance on us. And somehow we managed to raise the money to pay her and to watch in awe one November day in 1994 as a flatbed truck carrying the statue we called Philosophers’ Rock arrived from the foundry in New Mexico.
Some years after that we erected another statue on Congress Avenue, in the heart of downtown Austin. The subject was Angelina Eberly, the innkeeper heroine of the 1842 “Archive War,” who had shot off a cannon to prevent men sent by Sam Houston, the president of the Republic of Texas, from confiscating the government archives, which would have effectively moved the capital of the infant nation from Austin to the president’s namesake town on Buffalo Bayou. The sculptor was the renowned editorial cartoonist Patrick Oliphant, and in his trademark style he depicted Eberly firing off a full-sized cannon in a mood of comic berserkness. After that (long after that—we average about one statue a decade), we commissioned Clete Shields to create an eight-foot-high bronze testament to Willie Nelson that was unveiled—accidentally, we swear—at 4:20 p.m. on 4/20 at Second Street and Lavaca, in front of Willie himself and a horizonless downtown sea of his fans.
We were aware that the subjects of these statues were imperfect human beings. Webb, the fully clothed historian who stands at the edge of Philosophers’ Rock, frozen in discussion with Dobie and Bedichek in their bathing suits, has long been under fire for his 1935 book The Texas Rangers, something of a paean that paid scant attention to the pernicious racism that is an ineradicable part of the organization’s history. And Eberly, during at least one point in her career as an innkeeper, had run her business with enslaved labor.
But we were unwilling to sacrifice the themes of these statues to the flaws of their subjects. We were proud that Philosophers’ Rock was not a celebration of a general or a war—it was a monument to friendship and conversation. Angelina Eberly was a monument to an outraged woman of courage and decisiveness. The Willie Nelson statue was a monument to . . . well, to Willie.
I know that behind every statue we erect and the story we mean to tell with it, there will always be the dark shadows of another story, more palpable to some than to others.
Being a part-time statue impresario gave me a taste of the satisfaction sculptors must feel when—after months or years of research and physical labor and uncertainty—they finally watch a crane lift the final product onto the place where it is envisioned to remain for all time. Among the members of our little CAST group were writers, filmmakers, photographers, and musicians—and all of us agreed that imagining a statue and seeing it at last in its two-ton reality was the biggest creative buzz we had ever experienced. I still get a secret thrill out of watching passersby read the plaque on the Angelina Eberly statue—my words in bronze!—and of seeing young children ignoring the signs asking them not to climb onto Philosophers’ Rock and settling themselves into the laps of those grandfatherly figures. But I know that behind every statue we erect and the story we mean to tell with it, there will always be the dark shadows of another story, more palpable to some than to others. That’s true of any work of art but especially of public monuments, which must live or die by the consent of the populace.
After confessing my entanglement with public sculpture to Daina Berry (who, by the way, is a fellow of the Walter Prescott Webb chair in history), I mused aloud that maybe the words that appear on the Angelina Eberly and Philosophers’ Rock plaques—words that were carefully considered at the time and expensively cast in bronze—should undergo some revision so that they pointed out Eberly’s slaveholding and the fact that when Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb were holding forth at Barton Springs, they were doing so in an Edenic setting that was off-limits to swimmers and philosophers of color.
“I think people would appreciate that,” she said. “Like you, I know statues can be beautiful works of art. But people need to have the whole portrait. My biggest issue is that there’s only one side of a story. It’s never the complete story. It’s fine to celebrate people, but I think we should talk about their whole history and all their complexities, even if it’s the stuff that makes us uncomfortable.”
There is no such thing as heavy-metal permanence, as Pompeo Coppini would find out to his horror if he were still alive. His statue of Sul Ross, the Texas governor and Confederate general, which has long stood at the center of campus at Texas A&M University, where he was once the president, has been sprayed this summer with graffiti, crowned with a rainbow wig, and made the focal point of heated protests, most notably featuring famed A&M sprinter Infinite Tucker. (“I don’t like the way I feel, knowing that statue is still around,” Tucker said.) Coppini’s Spirit of Sacrifice, a sixty-foot-high monument that is better known as the Alamo Cenotaph, is caught in the cross fire amid all the competing constituencies involved in the ongoing transformation of the Alamo site, and back in May it was sprayed with graffiti denouncing “white supremacy, profit over people,” and the Alamo itself.
In late July, I drove to Victoria to have a look at another one of Coppini’s imperiled works, a Confederate monument called The Last Stand, which depicts, in the sculptor’s words, “a hero, standing after a hard battle, wounded, at the edge of a cliff.” The local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who funded the statue, greeted its unveiling in 1912 with rapturous approval. “The Confederate veterans will weep at the sight of it,” their chairman wrote, “and every Yankee will weep at the sight of it.”
There was now a movement afoot in Victoria to remove the statue from its commanding setting in De Leon Plaza and relocate it to Evergreen Cemetery, where it could rest away from public view among the Confederate dead. There was as yet no formal petition and no vote planned, but at a city council meeting the day I was in town, local citizens were given an opportunity to weigh in on the issue. The meeting, like so many during the pandemic, was being held on Zoom, so there was no point in dropping by city hall. When I watched the meeting on my computer the next day, it was sometimes hard to make out what exactly was being said, due to the accidental mutings and glitchy Wi-Fi. But the overarching argument was clear enough. “For one hundred and eight years,” an advocate for removal argued, “this statue has been a reminder of Confederate values and ideologies.” If it were taken down, she said, the empty space where it had once been would be “a reminder that our community rejects hate and ignorance.”
The speaker who followed countered that the removal initiative was part of a “Marxist uprising.” “Let’s get one thing clear,” he said. “The agenda of the left has been exposed, and patriots from coast to coast and intrastate are wide awake.”
While the city council meeting was going on in real time, there was a simultaneous demonstration taking place at the statue itself, where several dozen protestors who were members of or had ties to groups like Texans Standing for Freedom, Texas Crossroads Civil Defense Force, Patriots for Texas, Lavaca County Incident Response Regiment, and This Is Texas Freedom Force had gathered in front of Coppini’s Last Stand. With their assault rifles and body armor, they looked like they were ready to make a last stand themselves.
A demonstrator who said his name was Pyro introduced me to a stocky, muscular man who went by “Hogg.” “The main reason we’re here is to protect our history,” Hogg (no relation to the former governor) said. Like all of the heavily armed men around him, he was disconcertingly friendly and polite, blithely indifferent to the pandemic but understanding of my wish not to shake hands with him and to stand six feet away. He was wearing a black T-shirt, camouflage pants, and Level 4 body armor with steel plates front and back and was carrying a collapsible steel baton, a Mossberg 500 shotgun, and a gruesome machete-like knife.
“I met a woman,” he went on, “who told me that they traveled the United States and her children were home-schooled, and they learned history by the monuments. And I don’t see why this statue would cause any problems for anybody.”
Kristi Mehrens, who was a leader of one of the groups at the demonstration but who was not armed or decked out in paramilitary gear, said that the statue was a “symbol of the great men that died fighting for history. And it has nothing to do with any kind of race or political stance. You cannot erase our history.”
I agreed with her on this much: you can’t erase history. But you can melt bronze at 1,742 degrees Fahrenheit. You can break a statue into pieces, remove it, erect it somewhere else, replace it with something or someone more palatable to its time. That process is history too.