Questions linger regarding Confederate statues at UT

Panel to consider ‘imagery’ but focus on dorm named for Klan member.

By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Thursday, May 27, 2010

The revelation that a 55-year-old dormitory at the University of Texas is named for a leader of the Ku Klux Klan has prompted questions about whether the university has done enough to confront its racial history.

UT has sponsored an annual symposium for years honoring the first black student at the School of Law. It has placed statues of important minority figures in prominent locations on campus. It named a dormitory for a longtime black staff member.

And last week, UT President William Powers Jr. assigned his vice president for diversity and community engagement to form a work group and report to him by the end of June with recommendations regarding the name of Simkins Residence Hall . William Stewart Simkins taught law at UT for 30 years; earlier, he and his brother, Eldred, who became a UT System regent, organized the Ku Klux Klan in Florida after the Civil War.

But Powers has not followed through on his statement in December 2006 that he would establish a panel to look into various tributes to the Confederacy on the South Mall. That long, gently sloping promenade of live oaks, lawn and concrete is the site each spring, as it was on Saturday, of perhaps the most important rite of passage at the university: commencement.

The mall includes bronze statues of four leaders of the Southern cause, including Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States, and Robert E. Lee, the chief general. The Littlefield Fountain, which anchors the mall and at first blush appears to be a generic war memorial, also glorifies 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."

Powers’ predecessor, Larry Faulkner, proposed rearranging the statues, and there had also been discussion about adding plaques that would offer more nuanced explanations of slavery, states’ rights and the Civil War.

"We will consider the issue of campus imagery, but the focus of the work group is Simkins Hall," said Gregory Vincent, the vice president for diversity.

He acknowledged that the campus isn’t always the most comfortable place for blacks. One problem is that they constitute just 4.5 percent of UT’s enrollment of nearly 51,000 students.

"That is unfortunately the challenge for African Americans and at times Latinos at predominantly white campuses," Vincent said. "There have been proactive steps to make the place more inclusive."

The university has sponsored an annual symposium for 24 years honoring the legacy of Heman Sweatt , the first African American to attend its School of Law. Statues of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Barbara Jordan, the first black woman from the South elected to Congress, have been erected. Three years ago, the university named a new dormitory for Almetris Marsh Duren , a black woman who served as a house mother to generations of minority students.

Moreover, in a move intended in part to give officials discretion to admit additional minority students, the university persuaded state lawmakers last year to scale back a state law entitling high-ranking students to attend the university.

A change in the name of the 190-bed Simkins Hall would need approval from the UT Board of Regents but would have to be initiated by the campus, said Anthony de Bruyn , a spokesman for the UT System. The board controls campus design and artwork, so any rearrangement of statues also would require its blessing.

"I think it would be good for President Powers to take up the work of President Faulkner and ensure an honest and critical dialogue about that part of the university’s history," said Tom Russell , a University of Denver law professor whose article on Simkins prompted UT’s review of the dorm’s name. "But I am not a person who thinks names of the Confederates or statues need to be removed from campus.

"Constitutional law supported slavery as a legal institution. That makes a difference for me. Slavery was a deplorable institution, but slavery was supported at the very highest levels in the United States, not just in the South," Russell said.

In contrast, the Klan’s efforts to enforce its vision of white supremacy involved illegal activity, including murder.

Reminders of UT’s history can be uncomfortable for black students, said Kristin Thompson, a civil engineering major and president of the Black Student Alliance. She considers removal of Simkins’ name a moral imperative but does not favor taking down the Confederate statues.

"What makes the Klan awful is not just that they were violating the law, but that they were awful," said Sanford Levinson, a professor of law at UT who wants Simkins’ name stripped from the dorm. "They were violating the law in the name of really awful values."

Levinson, the author of "Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies," said Powers might be reluctant to stir up a hornets’ nest regarding the statues. "Sometimes, you need to stir up hornets," Levinson said.

Janet Staiger , a professor of communication who chairs the Faculty Council, said she would like to see the university undertake a broad examination that includes the dorm and the statues. "The university has to be a leader in defusing racial tensions and repairing the past," she said.

As for the dorm’s name, she said: "Like the statues on the front lawn of the university, this is an affront to many members of the university community, and I would prefer not to have such unwelcoming gestures to the citizens of the State of Texas."

Copyright © 2010

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