The question of what to do with the Confederate relics that dot the South has been burning in this country since the June shooting deaths of nine African-American churchgoers in South Carolina. Their deaths were at the hands of a person who proudly displayed an affinity for such imagery, which threw often ignored Confederate mementos into sharp relief. It didn’t start with Dylann Roof and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, of course, but after decades of “heritage” and “history” used to explain why public institutions ranging from the South Carolina Capitol to the University of Texas still proudly displayed Confederate flags and statues of Confederate heroes, things are finally changing.
South Carolina and Alabama’s state governments reacted relatively quickly. The Confederate flag in South Carolina came down over a month ago, and Alabama removed the four that flew over its Capitol at the end of June. But at UT, five statues Confederate soldiers lingered on the main mall, even after pushback from the student government, petitions on sites like Change.org, and acts of vandalism that tagged the statues with slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Bump All The Chumps.”
But UT President Gregory L. Fenves announced Thursday that Jefferson Davis’ reign over the University of Texas is over — the statue would be moved from its central location on the main mall and relocated to the Briscoe Center for American History. For symmetry’s sake, President Woodrow Wilson will lose his prime location, too, but Davis’ fellow Confederates James Stephen Hogg, Albert Sidney Johnston, John Reagan, and Robert E. Lee will stay put. As Fenves wrote this morning:
I have decided that the best location for the Jefferson Davis statue is 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. 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. […]
Additionally, to preserve the symmetry of the Main Mall, we will relocate the statue of President Woodrow Wilson, which stands opposite the statue of Davis, to an appropriate exterior location on campus. The Davis statue will be refurbished for interior display while its site at the Briscoe Center is prepared. I do not foresee replacing these with other statues since their location at the entrance to the Main Mall plaza is aesthetically separate from the other statues on the Main Mall.
The other four figures of the Littlefield Memorial will remain in place. James Stephen Hogg, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John Reagan had deep ties to Texas. Robert E. Lee’s complicated legacy to Texas and the nation should not be reduced to his role in the Civil War. Their history will be described in the Briscoe Center. I will consider placing a plaque near the Littlefield Fountain to provide context. This combination of locating the Jefferson Davis statue in a center devoted to history and keeping the remaining statues along the Main Mall is both respectful of the heritage that is important to many and serves as a poignant display of our nation’s and university’s history.
In other words, Davis is being relegated to the Dustbin of (the Briscoe Center for American) History because he wasn’t a Texan. Wilson, who carries plenty of racist baggage, is getting moved for aesthetic reasons — but he’s not so divisive a figure that he needs to be framed strictly in the context of a museum piece.
Hogg, Johnston, Reagan, and — most critically — Robert E. Lee will maintain their vigil over the university, though, which is unlikely to satisfy most critics of the statues. Indeed, if the definition of “compromise” is “an agreement with which no party is happy,” then Fenves’ decision is a perfect example of such a thing: already, critics on both sides are expressing their displeasure with the choice to remove Davis and leave the others.
It's nice @UTAustin is removing the Jefferson Davis statue, but pathetic that the other confederate ones are remaining in place
— gene parmesan (@laurak8d) August 13, 2015
UT president moves Jefferson Davis statue to history museum. Now, take down the rest of the confederate symbols https://t.co/Nguj1O0UX2
— Sequoia Maner (@__Sequoia__) August 13, 2015
— dr max tparty (@MaxCUA) August 13, 2015
— amyboone (@amyboone) August 13, 2015
@gregfenves Fuck you.
— Taco (@TacoFetus) August 13, 2015
Fenves’ and UT’s position that, basically, Texas Confederates can remain, but others are out, marks some measure of progress on an issue that’s lingered for decades. As Don Graham wrote for Texas Monthly back in 2007:
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).
The decision by Fenves falls far short of the proposal Seale made eight years before the Confederate flags in South Carolina and Alabama came down, but it’s something. Meanwhile, we’ll stick with the Graham’s idea for what to do with the remaining statues: “Change all the inscriptions on the existing statues. Thus Jefferson Davis could become Mirabeau B. Lamar, and so on,” he wrote. “Trust me, nobody would ever know the difference.”