What’s in a name? Plenty, it turns out
Nicole Stockdale explains the evolution of the editorial board’s stance on Confederate memorials
More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, and Dallas remains mired in Confederate controversy. The divisions are deep, and the editorial board has worked diligently to reflect that on our Viewpoints op-ed page. We’ve published a near-equal number of commentaries on either side — the count is currently 11 “keep the monument” op-eds vs. 12 “remove them” columns.
The job of the editorial board, however, is not simply to reflect the community’s views or mirror majority opinion, it is to understand the different points of view and recommend in its institutional editorials which course of action would be best for our community.
Consider the question of whether to rename William L. Cabell Elementary School, just as Dallas ISD officials are doing this week. Which side are you on?
Cabell was a Virginian working in Arkansas as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army prior to the Civil War. When the South seceded, so did Cabell. He rose to the level of brigadier general in the Confederate Army and took part in the infamous Battle of Poison Springs in April 1864, where wounded black soldiers were executed in the field after the battle.
At this point, many of you have picked a side: Rename the school and remove any statues in his honor, or you’re endorsing the white supremacist roots this city was built on.
But consider his post-Civil War career. Cabell came to Dallas in 1872. He served three separate terms as mayor after the fall of the state’s Reconstruction-era government, ushering in advancements in electricity, telephones and education.
Dallas Morning News articles in the 1950s, when Cabell Elementary School was built, refer to him as “the father of Dallas public schools.”
Cabell’s son and grandson would go on to serve as Dallas mayors, as well. (It was Cabell’s grandson, Earle, who was mayor when John F. Kennedy was assassinated; in the late 1950s, he was a prominent business owner and chair of the Crime Commission.)
Maybe it was those civic accomplishments, not white supremacy, that put Cabell’s name atop an elementary school. Some of you might be saying: To rename this school or remove this statue just because of his Confederate past is political correctness run amok, an attempt to whitewash history.
These are the types of discussions our editorial board has had over the past few months, and they have been robust.
Times change. Our opinions as an editorial board do, too. But they aren’t altered on a whim.
In July, we came to the conclusion that the Robert E. Lee statue in an Oak Lawn park should come down. Last week, we supported (again) Dallas ISD’s decision to rename schools named after Confederates. But there have certainly been differences around the table on how this should play out.
Over the years, our editorial perspective has evolved. In May 2015, for instance, when the University of Texas was embroiled in a debate over removing statues on campus, we noted: “The lingering understanding of the Confederate South should not be of some agrarian idyll championing states’ rights. The most troubling truth about that society was its embrace of the empty and corrupt ideology that supported a racist system of slavery, at the root of painful divisions cutting at this country’s core even now.”
Still, we called not for removal of this public artwork — but for the addition of plaques “to add historical context and meaning.” (Confederate school names, however, should be removed, we said.)
By this spring, as the simmering statue controversy started to boil again in Dallas, the plaque solution no longer seemed sufficient. We’d seen, in June 2015, Dylann Roof try to start a race war by slaughtering nine people at a historic Charleston, S.C., church. South Carolina had removed the Confederate flag from its Statehouse. New Orleans had removed four Confederate statues.
By July, the editorial board was ready to call for two Confederate monuments in Dallas to be removed: “They are stand-alone symbols that pay specific tribute to the side of the Civil War that fought to keep human beings in bondage. Continuing to pay homage to that cause is unnecessarily divisive and out of touch.”
Weeks later, after watching white supremacists use a Confederate statue as a rallying point in Charlottesville, that decision was reinforced. What would a bronze plaque citing historical context do in the face of scenes like this?
Most of us felt instinctively that Dallas’ stand-alone statues — one of Robert E. Lee in Oak Lawn and the Confederate War Memorial near the convention center — should go. But that was an emotional response; this was a shift in principle for the board, and testing the logic behind such a move was critical.
Should all Confederate statues and namesakes be removed? No, we decided. Dallas’ other two big Confederate monuments — both at Fair Park — should stay “because they’re part of a larger historical presentation that places Texas and its role in the Confederacy in a broader context.”
Does Confederate service during the Civil War negate good deeds performed years later? Not necessarily. When Texas A&M announced that it would keep the statue of former campus president Lawrence Sullivan Ross, despite the fact that he had been a Confederate general, we agreed. Ross was credited with saving the university, and his statue depicted him as an educator, not a warrior.
When Dallas ISD administrators recommended renaming four schools named after Confederate generals, the editorial board felt as if we were on solid ground in favor of removal: We’d supported removing Confederate names for years. But the more we read, the more we realized it wasn’t that simple.
Renaming schools named after Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Albert Sidney Johnston was an easy call. All three were Confederate generals who had little reason to be revered in Dallas beyond their treasonous leadership in the Civil War.
But the fourth? William L. Cabell was not as cut and dry. What was the intent of civic leaders when they named an elementary school for him?
Was the city’s white power structure trying to send a message, right after Brown vs. Board of Education decision, about who was calling the shots in this segregated city?
Or were they simply trying to honor a former mayor who played an integral role in developing Dallas’ public school system?
It’s difficult to fully understand the motivation of politicians serving today, let alone those naming schools almost 60 years ago. (Perhaps one hint: When Cabell died in 1911, virtually all of the lengthy Morning News obituary — 20 paragraphs or so — was devoted to his Civil War connections. It includes just two perfunctory sentences about his mayoral service, with zero mention of any accomplishments, public-school-related or not.)
Back to 2017, where in our 450-word editorial last week on renaming DISD schools, we said simply, “We have questions about a fourth, William L. Cabell Elementary, built in 1958; Cabell was a Confederate general, but he was also a three-term mayor of Dallas with real contributions to the city.”
Just three dozen words on the published page — but a thicket of issues behind it.
DISD trustees voted Thursday to rename all four schools. We wish they had held off on Cabell. Yes, he was a Confederate general, with the treason and horrors of war that accompany such leadership. But he was also much more than that to the city of Dallas, with real civil accomplishments under his belt.
We don’t know which side of his past officials intended to honor when naming this elementary school. In that absence, there’s no need for school officials to force a quick renaming, as they are with schools named after Lee, Jackson and Johnston. Instead, let the community decide — under the regular, deliberative renaming process.
William L. Cabell Elementary is a Dallas ISD school named for a Confederate general who later served three terms as Dallas mayor. Renaming this school isn’t a cut-and-dried call, says Nicole Stockdale, as Cabell contributed so much to the city of Dallas.
Renaming schools named after Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee (from left), Stonewall Jackson and Albert Sidney Johnston was an easy call for the editorial board.