Af­ter Char­lottesville, many in Austin call for thor­ough re­view of Con­fed­er­ate signs, mon­u­ments

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By El­iz­a­beth Fin­dell efind­ell@states­

Af­ter a rally by white su­prem­a­cists fight­ing re­moval of a Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ment turned deadly in Char­lottesville, Va., last week­end, the re­sponse in Austin came swiftly.

Austin City Coun­cil mem­bers im­me­di­ately be­gan pa­per­work to re­name Robert E. Lee Road, near Zilker Park, and Jeff Davis Av­enue, near Al­lan­dale. At the Capi­tol, state Rep. Eric John­son, D-Dal­las, de­manded re­moval of a Con­fed­er­ate plaque near his of­fice. House Speaker Joe Straus sug­gested the State Preser­va­tion Board should re­view signs and mon­u­ments around the Capi­tol grounds for ac­cu­racy.

“There’s so much we should be cel­e­brat­ing, we don’t need to cel­e­brate a past that has racist or seg­re­ga­tion­ist his­to­ries,” Mayor Steve Adler said Fri­day on CNN. “We’re re­spon­si­ble now for mov­ing past that.”

It is the sec­ond time the na­tion has re­vis­ited its pub­lic mon­u­ments to the Con­fed­er­acy since the sum­mer of 2015, when white

su­prem­a­cist Dy­lann Roof mas­sa­cred nine black church­go­ers in South Carolina. More than a dozen of those mon­u­ments re­main in the Austin area.

While some Austin com­mu­nity mem­bers wel­comed the pro­posed changes, oth­ers have ques­tioned the quick re­ac­tions and the charged de­bates they ig­nite. Where does it end? Which nods to a Con­fed­er­ate past are records of his­tory and which are cel­e­bra­tions of ha­tred? What about name­sakes pre­dat­ing the Con­fed­er­acy who fought to keep slav­ery in­tact? What about the name of the city it­self?

“I’ve heard peo­ple say, ‘What about Stephen F. Austin?’” Coun­cil Mem­ber Les­lie Pool said. “I haven’t fully formed my think­ing on this, but it is sym­bolic. ... This is a con­ver­sa­tion for our com­mu­nity, and if they tell us that we haven’t gone far enough or we’ve gone too far, they need to set those stan­dards.”

Austin, the man, was in­stru­men­tal in en­sur­ing Cen­tral Texas re­mained a slave re­gion, said Greg Cantrell, Texas Christian Univer­sity’s his­tory chair, who wrote a bi­og­ra­phy of Austin. Known as the Fa­ther of Texas, he was key to keep­ing the state govern­ment of Coahuila, which then in­cluded Texas, from abol­ish­ing slav­ery in the 1820s and later fought to make sure that if Texas joined the United States its slave-own­ing sta­tus would be pro­tected.

But Austin, who died be­fore the Civil War be­gan, never fought against the United States.

Coun­cil Mem­ber Greg Casar — one of the first coun­cil mem­bers to sign on to the ef­fort to re­name Robert E. Lee Road — said his aim isn’t to erase the ac­com­plish­ments of slave own­ers in his­tory, but to push back against a re­vi­sion­ist his­tory that saw mon­u­ments to Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­als erected in re­sponse to civil rights ad­vances.

“Stephen F. Austin has those is­sues,” Casar said. “He is fa­mous for rea­sons other than de­fend­ing the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery and lead­ing a war that led to a million plus peo­ple dy­ing to de­fend the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery.”

Echoes of the Con­fed­er­acy

Most Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments and mark­ers were es­tab­lished dur­ing two bursts — one from the 1890s into the 1920s, when “sep­a­rate but equal” laws were es­tab­lished, and again in the 1950s and 1960s as civil rights ad­vances eroded those laws. Their real mo­ti­va­tion, Cantrell said, was of­ten to re­assert white supremacy.

If pre­serv­ing Amer­i­can his­tory is the is­sue, Casar said, “where are the dozens and dozens of stat­ues and mon­u­ments to King Ge­orge?”

The state Capi­tol in­cludes, among other mark­ers, a large mon­u­ment hon­or­ing Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers who “died for states rights guar­an­teed un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion,” and a Chil­dren of the Con­fed­er­acy plaque, ded­i­cated in 1959, which refers to “teach­ing the truths of his­tory,” in­clud­ing that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slav­ery.

It’s the plaque that has drawn the ire of Rep. John­son, who asked the State Preser­va­tion Board on Wed­nes­day to re­move it. Straus re­sponded with a state­ment that he would like the board to “re­view the ac­cu­racy of signs and mon­u­ments around the Capi­tol.” But John­son ar­gued that a sim­i­lar ef­fort in 2015 went nowhere.

“Just a his­tory book and a crow­bar” is needed, John­son said in a news re­lease Fri­day.

Gov. Greg Ab­bott op­posed re­mov­ing Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments, say­ing that it “won’t erase our na­tion’s past, and it doesn’t ad­vance our na­tion’s fu­ture.”

The Univer­sity of Texas be­gan a mon­u­ment in the early 1920s meant to sym­bol­ize post-war rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with six stat­ues placed around a foun­tain. But that mes­sage be­came some­what lost when univer­sity lead­er­ship in­stead placed the stat­ues around the univer­sity mall, away from one an­other.

In 2015, the univer­sity re­moved stat­ues of Con­fed­er­ate Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis and U.S. Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son. Four oth­ers re­main: Lee; Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Al­bert Sid­ney John­ston; John H. Rea­gan, post­mas­ter gen­eral of the Con­fed­er­ate states; and James Stephen Hogg, first na­tive-born gov­er­nor of Texas and son of a Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral.

The Davis statue was re­moved in re­sponse to a rec­om­men­da­tion from Stu­dent Govern­ment and an ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee — the other four were al­lowed to re­main be­cause UT Pres­i­dent Gre­gory L. Fenves found that they had deeper ties to Texas than did Davis. (Wil­son’s statue, which stood across from Davis’, was moved to main­tain sym­me­try.)

When asked last week whether he would again re­view the stat­ues of Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers on the South Mall, Fenves an­swered with a state­ment: “As we watch na­tional events closely in the af­ter­math of Char­lottesville, I am speak­ing with stu­dents, fac­ulty, alumni and oth­ers about their con­cerns, es­pe­cially on is­sues for our cam­pus. I am lis­ten­ing to mem­bers of our com­mu­nity to eval­u­ate how we move for­ward to best serve the univer­sity.”

In Wil­liamson County, former Demo­cratic Party Chair­man Greg Wind­ham asked county com­mis­sion­ers Tues­day to re­move a 21-foot Con­fed­er­ate statue out­side the court­house in Ge­orge­town “be­fore some­thing like that puts us on the na­tional news.” Com­mis­sioner Terry Cook said she was open to the de­bate and has heard from sev­eral peo­ple about the statue.

Bas­trop County formed a com­mit­tee in 2015 to ex­plore mov­ing a 1910 Con­fed­er­ate obelisk to a mu­seum. But County Judge Paul Pape said last week that 90 per­cent of the feed­back he has re­ceived about the memo­rial is to leave it in place, and that there has been no re­newed call for its re­moval since the in­ci­dent in Char­lottesville.

The roads ahead

On Wed­nes­day evening, red spray paint across the Robert E. Lee Road street signs was the only sign of strife in the area. Res­i­dents said they didn’t re­mem­ber other such re­cent van­dal­ism. But some called re­nam­ing the street an over­re­ac­tion.

“Peo­ple get up in arms about the lit­tlest things — they feel like it’s their sworn duty to see that some­thing from the past is erased due to mis­takes,” said Marissa Gon­za­les, 30. “It’s just a street sign.”

Oth­ers said they’d wel­come the change.

“We’ve never been su­per proud to live on this street,” said Emily Hen­der­son, 24, sug­gest­ing the city name it “some­thing not po­lit­i­cal. Maple Street?”

“It doesn’t bother me at all to change my ad­dress,” said Joel Wil­lard, 43. “They could name it for one of the peo­ple the cops shot this year.”

Robert E. Lee Road, once called River Road, was closed in the 1920s, and landown­ers had ar­gued to keep it closed due to its rep­u­ta­tion as a haven for “neck­ing par­ties.” It re­opened in 1940 bear­ing the name Robert E. Lee Road, re­port­edly be­cause Lee trav­eled that path to open fron­tier forts, but there’s no ev­i­dence prov­ing whether that’s true or an ur­ban leg­end.

Jeff Davis Av­enue was first found listed in city di­rec­to­ries in 1929, said Mike Miller, man­ag­ing ar­chiv­ist of the Austin His­tory Cen­ter. Though it’s pre­sumed to be named for Con­fed­er­ate Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis, there are no records con­cern­ing its nam­ing.

Pool is pitch­ing the idea of re­nam­ing Jeff Davis Av­enue for abo­li­tion­ist So­journer Truth and Robert E. Lee Road for Wil­liam De­Wayne Jones, a park po­lice of­fi­cer shot and killed near Zilker Park in 2000. But she ex­pects the pub­lic to bring other ideas.

“We’re go­ing to have a very in­ter­est­ing com­mu­nity con­ver­sa­tion about nam­ing and what’s ap­pro­pri­ate,” she said. “I ex­pect we’ll have some funny names and ref­er­ences to ‘Game of Thrones.’”


NEAR AL­LAN­DALE: Jeff Davis Av­enue was first listed in city di­rec­to­ries in 1929. It’s pre­sumed to be named for Con­fed­er­ate Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis, but there is no record.

AT THE CAPI­TOL: Hood’s Texas Brigade Mon­u­ment stands at the Capi­tol as a memo­rial to the mem­bers of John B. Hood’s Texas Brigade who fought in the Con­fed­er­ate army in the Civil War.


AV­ENUE: A gran­ite marker along South Congress notes the 1931 des­ig­na­tion of Jef­fer­son Davis High­way.


CON­FED­ER­ATE SOL­DIERS MON­U­MENT Troy­lan­dia Jack­son of Dal­las and nephew Jax­son Poole, 9, walk past the Con­fed­er­ate Sol­diers Mon­u­ment on the grounds of the state Capi­tol last week. The mon­u­ment was erected in 1903. It de­picts Con­fed­er­ate Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis and four generic sol­diers rep­re­sent­ing in­fantry, cav­alry, ar­tillery and navy.

JOHN H. REA­GAN STATE OF­FICE BUILD­ING The John H. Rea­gan State Of­fice Build­ing is part of the Capi­tol com­plex in Austin. Rea­gan, post­mas­ter gen­eral of the Con­fed­er­ate states, is also memo­ri­al­ized with a statue on the Univer­sity of Texas cam­pus, as is James Stephen Hogg, first na­tive-born gov­er­nor of Texas and son of a Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral.

JEF­FER­SON DAVIS In 2015, the Univer­sity of Texas re­moved the statue of Con­fed­er­ate Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis (left); fig­ures of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Al­bert Sid­ney John­ston and Gen. Robert E. Lee are among those that re­main. UT Pres­i­dent Gre­gory L. Fenves said last week that the univer­sity is eval­u­at­ing how to move for­ward.



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