A new civil war in Texas over adding Confederate landmarks
The number of sites in Texas that honor the Confederacy is growing — despite the opposition of the NAACP and others.
Dallas — Pity Jefferson Davis, if you will. Vandals have defaced his statue on the University of Texas campus, most recently with the words "Davis must fall" and "Emancipate UT." Student leaders are also seeking to remove from the Austin campus the century-old statue that recognizes the president of the Confederacy.
"We thought, there are those old ties to slavery and some would find it offensive," said senior Jamie Nalley, who joined an overwhelming majority of the Student Government in adopting a resolution in March supporting his ouster.
But as students take aim at Davis, the number of sites in Texas on public and private land that honor the Confederacy is growing — despite the opposition of the NAACP and others. Supporters cite their right to memorialize Confederate veterans and their role in Texas history, while opponents argue the memorials are too often insensitive or antagonistic, while having the backing of public institutions like UT.
The Texas Historical Commission has recognized more than 1,000 such sites from far South Texas to the upper reaches of the Panhandle. And the Sons of Confederate Veterans are planning others, including a 10-foot obelisk a few miles from the Davis statue to honor about 450 Confederate soldiers buried at the city-owned Oakwood Cemetery.
"I don't think we're trying to put up stuff just to put up stuff," said Marshall Davis, spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Texas. "We don't want to impede anyone else from honoring their heroes. We would like to honor our heroes with the same consideration, tolerance and diversity."
Besides the obelisk, other recent projects include a Confederate memorial along Interstate 10 in the East Texas city of Orange that will feature 32 waving flags representing Texas regiments of the Confederate army, along with 13 columns for each Confederate state. That project began after a Confederate Veterans Memorial Plaza was unveiled two years ago in downtown Palestine, near what the NAACP says was the site of a "hanging tree."
As for Jefferson Davis, student leaders and the NAACP say his statue has no place on the UT campus since his link to Texas is primarily based on the state's ties to the Confederate States of America.
"I think it's offensive that you exalt Jefferson Davis but you don't exalt Abraham Lincoln," said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP.
The Student Government resolution has been forwarded to campus administrators but no action has been taken, according to a university spokesman.
Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center for American History at UT, said the Davis statue and many other memorials installed across the South in the early 1900s were commissioned by aging Civil War veterans who were increasingly outspoken that it was states' rights and not slavery that motivated their actions.
Late in his life, George Washington Littlefield — a Confederate officer, UT regent and prominent benefactor to the school — had commissioned Italian artist Pompeo Coppini to build a fountain and statues to Littlefield's heroes, Carleton said. The artist sought to include a statue of President Woodrow Wilson and arrange a fountain configuration that represented the country moving beyond its fractured past and unifying behind the fight against Germany and its allies in World War I.
But Littlefield later died, money dried up and Coppini's vision was never fully realized, Carleton said. Instead, statues of Davis, President George Washington, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan and others were scattered about the campus without context.
Carleton said aside from the symbolism of the statues, they're works of art and should be preserved. He suggests adding explanatory plaques that describe the original intention.
"That's not going to placate everyone, and I understand that, but I think it's a lot better in explaining them to people rather than leaving it just as it is," he said.
The Texas Historical Commission has records of the more than 1,000 sites in the state that memorialize the Confederacy — from a Confederate cemetery in San Antonio and marker honoring Gen. Lawrence "Sul" Ross at Sul Ross State University in Alpine to a building in Marshall that housed the Civil War State Government of Missouri in exile.
The effort to remove the Davis statue is ill-conceived, said Marshall Davis.
"The fact that the state of Texas joined the Confederate States of America is history. It happened," he said. "It's not a matter of opinion."
The debate is also being heard in another forum: The US Supreme Court, which is expected to rule soon, on whether Texas has the authority to bar the issuance of a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag. As The Christian Science Monitor reported in March, when the Court heard the case:
The controversy arose in 2009 after the group Sons of Confederate Veterans asked the Texas Motor Vehicles Board to approve a specialty license plate that prominently displayed the Confederate flag.
In the century and a half since the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag has come to represent a symbol of Southern heritage for some. But for many others, including African-Americans, the flag is viewed as a symbol of fear, intimidation, and oppression.
Cognizant of this reaction, the Motor Vehicles Board voted to reject the license plate.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a lawsuit, charging that the Texas board – which has approved messages conveyed by 350 other specialty license plates – had engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment’s free speech clause.