University of Texas President Greg Fenves ordered the immediate removal of statues of Robert E. Lee and other prominent Confederate figures from a main area of campus, saying such monuments have become "symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism."
There was a heavy police presence, and some arguments occurred among those gathered, after Mr. Fenves announced the move late Sunday and crews began removing the statutes. The school blocked off the area, and the statues were expected to be gone by mid-morning Monday, a spokesman said.
Fenves said statues of Lee, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, and Confederate Postmaster General John H. Reagan will be moved to the Brisco Center for American History on campus. In 2015, the university moved a statue of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its perch near the campus clock tower, the same area as the other statutes, to the history museum.
Early Monday, crews first removed a statue of former Texas Gov. James Stephen Hogg, which was commissioned at the same time as the others, a spokesman said. The Hogg statue will get another place on campus.
Less than 30 people, both supporters and opponents of Fenves' order, congregated after midnight behind barricades near the statues. Among them was Mark Peterson, who identified himself as a University of Houston student. He was seething at the removal of the statues.
"I hate the erasure of history and my people's history ... people of European descent who built this country," the 22-year-old said. "It burns me to my core."
Mike Lowe, an activist for the removal of Confederate statues in San Antonio, was driving to Dallas when he heard the statues were coming down, turned around and drove to campus. Mr. Lowe, who is African-American, engaged in a brief but tense argument with a white male protester until police stepped in to separate them.
"They have no other reasons than 'you are erasing our history.' Their reasoning is flawed. These monuments represent white supremacy, and black lives haven't mattered in this county the same as a white man's matters," Lowe said.
The debate over public memorials for Confederate figures roared into national conversation last week after one person was killed and 19 were injured when a car drove into a crowd of people in a clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va.
"Last week, the horrific displays of hatred at the University of Virginia and in Charlottesville shocked and saddened the nation. These events make it clear, now more than ever, that Confederate monuments have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism," Fenves said in a statement.
Moving the Davis statue in 2015 was a much more deliberate effort. The Davis statue had long been a target of vandalism. Fenves convened a special task force to discuss its future after a shooting rampage by a white supremacist at a Charleston, S.C., church and ultimately decided it should come down.
Confederate groups tried to block the removal of the Davis statue and the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued to stop it, but a state district judge sided with the school.
The decision to take down the others came much quicker. Fenves said he spoke last week with student leaders, students, faculty members, staff members and alumni about what to do after the events in Virginia.
"The University of Texas at Austin is a public educational and research institution, first and foremost. The historical and cultural significance of the Confederate statues on our campus – and the connections that individuals have with them – are severely compromised by what they symbolize," Fenves said. "Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans. That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry."
Asked why the school decided to remove the statues during the overnight hours, university spokesman Gary Susswein said recent events played a factor.
"We've seen what happened elsewhere," Mr. Susswein said. "The timing was designed to ensure public safety and provide minimal disruption to campus."
This story was reported by The Associated Press.