COVER: A statue of Jefferson Davis, once president of the Confederate States, stands just south of the Main Building on the University of Texas’ main campus on June 22. PHOTO by LESLIE BOORHEEM STEPHENSON/THE TEXAS TRIBUNE
by ALLY MUTNICK
AUSTIN — Just days after an advisory panel recommended the University of Texas at Austin relocate some or all of its statues of Confederate leaders, UT-Austin President Gregory Fenves announced that the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis will soon have a new home.
UT is relocating the Davis statue to an exhibit in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. Four other statues the panel considered relocating — including ones of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston — will remain on the university’s South Mall, but Fenves will consider adding explanatory plaques to place them in historical context.
“While every historical figure leaves a mixed legacy, I believe Jefferson Davis is in a separate category,” Fenves wrote in a letter to the UT-Austin community, “and that it is not in the university’s best interest to continue commemorating him. Davis had few ties to Texas; he played a unique role in the history of the American South that is best explained and understood through an educational exhibit.”
The statue of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson will also be relocated to another outdoor location, but for symmetrical reasons: He stands opposite Davis on South Mall. The Davis statue will likely be removed in the next two days, UT-Austin spokesman Gary Susswein said. It will be refurbished and relocated to the Briscoe Center in the next 18 months.
In June, Fenves assembled a 12-member panel of students, professors and alumni to assess the appropriateness of the statues. The panel solicited more than 3,100 opinions from the public and released its recommendations Monday. Its report presented five options, four of which involved moving some or all of the statues to a history center on campus. Another option would have left the statues in place but called for explanatory plaques.
UT-Austin student government President Xavier Rotnofsky and Vice President Rohit Mandalapu made removal of the Davis statue a central part of their platform when running for office. Both served on the advisory panel and said they were happy to see their goal achieved.
“If there is a statue to be relocated it should be Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederacy,” Mandalapu said. “Now it can be moved to a place where it can be contextualized and studied within the scope of history.”
The other Confederate statues of Lee, Johnston and Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan — and one of former Texas Gov. James Hogg — have strong ties to Texas, Fenves said in his letter, noting Lee’s legacy “should not be reduced to his role in the Civil War.”
Moving the Davis statue, while leaving the other four in place is a respectful decision that still honors the heritage of the United States and the university, Fenves said.
The Davis statue has been the most controversial of the ones commemorating Confederate leaders. In March, the student assembly passed a resolution asking UT to remove the statue of Davis. In April, it was vandalized with the phrase “Davis Must Fall.” A week after June’s deadly shooting at a black church in South Carolina, the statues of Davis, Lee and Johnston were tagged with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
“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.”
“We hope the conversation at UT will encourage state leaders to have a similar debate about the numerous Confederate statues that dot the Capitol grounds,” they said in a statement. “We renew our previous request — one that’s been echoed by many legislators, both Democrat and Republican — to create a task force to begin a serious conversation about how best to honor Texas’ past, ensure historical accuracy and celebrate figures who are relevant to our state and worthy of our praise.”
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.