COVER: Three statues at the University of Texas at Austin that commemorate Confederate leaders were vandalized in June 2015. PHOTO by MATTHEW WATKINS/THE TEXAS TRIBUNE
by ALLY MUTNICK
AUSTIN — A task force on Monday recommended the University of Texas at Austin either relocate statues of Confederate leaders or add explanatory plaques.
The 12-person advisory panel of students, alumni and administrators issued recommendations to UT-Austin President Gregory Fenves, who commissioned the report in June, on the same day three statutes were vandalized.
The report suggested five options, four of which involve moving one or more statues from the South Mall to a history center on campus. A fifth option suggested leaving the statues in place and adding plaques to explain historical context. The panel considered the placement of six statues on UT’s campus, four depicting Confederate leaders including President Jefferson Davis, one of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and one of former Texas Gov. James Hogg.
Fenves will review the report before making a final decision, according to the university.
“Statues have layers of meaning: aesthetic, historical, aspirational, and educational. History is not innocent; it is the living foundation for the present,” the report said. “The university’s approach to changing and replacing monuments on campus should be conservative but not uncritical.”
A majority of the panel thought the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History is “a natural choice for relocation” because it could “place the statues in appropriate historical and educational contexts, rather than leaving the statues decontextualized but holding a prominent place of honor on campus,” the report said. The panel also suggested moving the statues to campus educational centers dedicated to humanities, arts or sciences. Another proposed location was the Littlefield Home, a Victorian-style house built in 1893 for the former Confederate soldier and UT regent George Littlefield, who commissioned the statues.
“It was a lot of healthy discussion,” said Xavier Rotnofsky, UT-Austin student government president and a member of the panel. “It was an academic environment so we set emotions aside and just came and talked about the history, the artistry and the controversy.”
The five options suggested by the panel were:
The task force was asked not to take cost into consideration, said Gregory J. Vincent, the university’s vice president for diversity and community engagement. If Fenves chooses to add plaques to the existing statues, Vincent said the panel recommended the signs “stick to the facts.”
“These were erected at during a time of neo-Confederate ascension,” he said. “It was part of an opportunity to revise history to talk about the power of the Confederacy.”
The statues have been a growing source of controversy at the university, which has Confederate leaders commemorated on its South Mall. In March, the student assembly adopted a resolution asking UT to remove the most controversial statue of Davis. The next month, that statue was vandalized when someone tagged it with the phrase “Davis Must Fall.”
Fenves announced the creation of the task force in June, after another bout of vandalism. A week after the deadly shooting in a black church in South Carolina, someone spray-painted “Black Lives Matter” on the statue of Davis and on the ones of generals Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston. An online petition calling for the removal of the Davis statue has garnered more than 3,500 signatures since it started in June.
The task force solicited more than 3,100 opinions through public forms, phone calls and online submissions. According to the report, 33 percent of those opinions were in favor of leaving the statues in place, another 33 percent suggested relocation the Davis statue, 27 percent wanted all statues removed and 7 percent gave other suggestions.
The scrutiny follows a national conversation about the use of Confederate flags and symbols in Southern culture. In July, Texas Democrats asked Gov. Greg Abbott to evaluate the appropriateness of Confederate monuments at the state Capitol — a request that occurred the same day South Carolina lawmakers voted to remove the Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds. Communities across the state have also discussed renaming schools named after Confederate leaders.
ALLY MUTNICK reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.Email | Print