What to do about Confederate statues at UT?
Powers to appoint advisory panel.
By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
A stroll past the statues shaded by live oaks along the South Mall of the University
of Texas suggests that the university has a soft spot for the Confederacy. After
all, four of the bronze figures were leaders of the Southern cause, including
Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States, and Robert E. Lee, the chief
Even the Littlefield Fountain, which anchors the South Mall and at first glance
appears to be a generic war memorial, is a tribute to the Confederacy, as an
inscription on a stone wall makes clear without actually mentioning slavery:
"To the men and women of the Confederacy who fought with valor and suffered
with fortitude that states rights be maintained."
More than two years ago, UT’s president concluded in an open letter to the
campus that many people of all races see the displays as evidence of "institutional
nostalgia" for the Confederacy and its values.
"Most who receive that message are repelled," Larry Faulkner wrote.
Now, his successor, William Powers Jr., must decide what to do about it.
Faulkner had proposed rearranging the statues, and there was talk of adding
plaques that would offer more detailed explanations. Some critics have suggested
moving the Davis and Lee statues to a museum. Powers, who counts himself among
those troubled by the displays, plans to appoint a committee of advisers early
next year, probably including faculty members and students.
"The whole range of options is on the table," Powers said. "A
lot of students, and especially minority students, have raised concerns. And
those are understandable and legitimate concerns. On the other hand, the statues
have been here for a long time, and that’s something we have to take into account
The state’s other public flagship, Texas A&M University, has also struggled
with its statuary. An effort to erect a likeness of Matthew Gaines, a former
slave who had a role as a state senator in the establishment of A&M, stalled
when it was decided to build a memorial to those killed or injured in the 1999
collapse of logs stacked for a bonfire.
At UT, student-led efforts are adding some diversity to the outdoor artwork.
Students taxed themselves to raise money for a statue of civil rights leader
Martin Luther King Jr.; it was unveiled in 1999 on the East Mall. Subsequent
incidents of vandalism prompted installation of a video camera and campus soul-searching
about race relations.
A likeness of César Chávez, the labor and civil rights leader,
is scheduled to be unveiled in the spring on the West Mall. Also in the works
is a statue of Barbara Jordan, the first black woman elected to the Texas Senate
and the first black woman from the South elected to Congress. A group of students
recently launched a campaign for a statue of Mohandas Gandhi, whose nonviolent
civil disobedience helped win independence for India and rights for minorities
in South Africa.
Gandhi’s contributions to social justice inspired King, Nelson Mandela and
others, said Nausheen Jivani, a sophomore majoring in political communication
"In the same respect, however, an architectural representation of an Asian
or Asian American figure has yet to be erected on the University of Texas campus,
and a statue of Gandhi would begin to fill some of this void," she said.
The student-led initiatives are encouraging, said Charles Roeckle, the deputy
"We need to deal with the South Mall statuary eventually, one way or another,"
Roeckle said. "But at the same time, I find it edifying that students are
dealing with this in a very positive way."
The South Mall statues pose awkward questions of historical and artistic context.
The artist, Pompeo Coppini, intended for the figures to be grouped around the
Littlefield Fountain along with other statues, including President Woodrow Wilson.
Coppini thought this would show how the nation came together in World War I
under Wilson, without Dixie line distinction. But his plan was underfunded,
and architect Paul Cret decided in the early 1930s to distribute the statues
along the South Mall in a way that left each one isolated.
"When you scatter them around the mall, it just looks like you’re paying
tribute to individual people," said Don Carleton, director of UT’s Center
for American History.
But grouping the statues as Coppini envisioned, without an explanatory plaque,
would gloss over historical complexity, said Sanford Levinson, a professor of
law at UT. Although Wilson’s presidency represented a certain spirit of national
unity, Wilson was also the most racist and reactionary president since Andrew
Johnson, Levinson said. Wilson screened "The Birth of a Nation," which
portrayed black people as villains and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, at the White
Dale Baum, a history professor at A&M, said UT’s statues and fountain inscription
make it arguably the most Confederate campus in the South.
The displays "should never be refashioned in line with contemporary scholarship,"
Baum said, "for they are living memorials to how the brief semblance of
justice achieved for black Texans during Reconstruction was subsequently cruelly
betrayed. This itself is a valuable lesson to learn and understand."
Patrick Slattery, a professor of the philosophy of education at A&M who
has studied the statuary on both campuses, would like to see contemporary figures
and memorials added as well as more complex signage.
"Perhaps it is time to move the statue of Jefferson Davis at UT and the
statue of Sul Ross at A&M to a suitable museum space with a robust historical
analysis from several perspectives," Slattery said. "Perhaps Barbara
Jordan and Matthew Gaines should stand on these pedestals for the next 50 years."
Any such effort probably would produce criticism from Southern heritage groups
and other organizations. Lawrence Sullivan "Sul" Ross, who was a general
in the Confederate army, governor of Texas and president of A&M, is something
of a beloved figure on campus.
Students leave pennies at the base of his statue for good luck on exams.
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