UT removed Confederate statues from campus, not the classroom
© Courtesy of the University of Texas Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History

In 1921, University of Texas at Austin President Robert Vinson sent Professor William Battle to Chicago with the task of reviewing several plaster models of Confederate leaders created by the Italian sculptor Pompeo Coppini for a war memorial commissioned for campus. 

Battle was blunt in his criticism of the models, writing to Vinson, “In view of the fact that President Davis was a temperamental, excitable man, the serene thoughtfulness of the figure seems a misinterpretation.” 

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Coppini was outraged, calling Battle, a “snake, a mean rattler” in a letter to his friend, State Senator Harry Hertzberg who replied, “to think of an artist having to have his work passed upon by a nincompoop of such dimensions.”

 

This rather unsavory exchange illustrates how UT Austin’s Confederate statues were the source of hot tempers before they were ever cast in bronze.

The letters — as well as many historic documents and photographs — were uncovered during research for the Briscoe Center’s exhibit “From Commemoration to Education: Pompeo Coppini’s Statue of Jefferson Davis,” the centerpiece of which is the Davis statue itself. 

The statue was removed from the university’s South Mall in August 2015, in wake of the shooting of nine black church-goers in Charleston earlier that summer. After 14 months of research the statue was back on public display, but transformed into a teaching moment by its placement within an exhibit.

The center’s exhibit provides a helpful model for how public institutions can move forward as Confederate statue controversies arise. Regardless of past intentions, these statues now convey a disturbing message to many of our citizens. By moving them to museums, archives and other educational settings, they can be preserved as historical evidence as well as original works of art.

However, relocating them from public places of honor serves another key function — it underlines the fact that Confederate leaders, as well as their ideas and actions, are no longer commemorated or endorsed by the institutions where many of these monuments are currently displayed.

Monuments, like flags, transmit cultural and political messages. They symbolize principles, worldviews and mores that speak on behalf of the spaces in which they stand. 

As a historian, I feel strongly that there can be little credible debate about the legacy of Confederate leaders. These are men who violated their oaths of allegiance to the United States, who led a titanic and bloody rebellion in order to preserve the enslavement of their fellow human beings and whose actions resulted in the deaths of an estimated 800,000 souls — not to mention an unimaginable number of wounded and permanently disabled.

They do not — and cannot — represent American civil society in a democracy.

As was made plain in Charlottesville, those who continue to champion confederate leaders are revealing themselves as a new generation of white racists. It is they who have history wrong, not the institutions seeking to remove these statues. And yet, much has been made about history being “rewritten” or “sanitized” by the removal of these monuments.

Those who gain their knowledge of history from mute statuary rather than objective and well-researched books are getting a very skewed out-of-context understanding of the past. It must also be remembered that Confederate memorials themselves often represented attempts to rewrite history. 

As numerous infographics have recently shown, the creation of these monuments spiked at certain points in American history. The majority were erected at the turn of the 20th century, a time when Confederate veterans were entering their autumn years and were anxious to see their legacy remembered and honored. For those who had served, who had lost friends, lived with disability and sacrificed the best years of their lives, commemoration seemed due.

Organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy helped galvanize the movement, even in places west of the Mississippi, which had relatively quiet Civil War years but whose population swelled as Confederate veterans migrated West during Reconstruction.   

Unlike the stoic, abstract monuments to the Vietnam War, Confederate memorials often depict generals and leaders rather than common soldiers. Instead of depicting the sacrifice of those caught in the net of historical forces outside of their control, Confederate monuments tend to be boastful, saluting rebel leaders as statesman or warriors, and thus tacitly endorsing their ideology, prejudices and actions. 

Confederate monuments are really about consolidating a false view of history (“the lost cause”) that was based on alternative facts (such as the Civil War being about ”liberty and freedom,” not slavery) and a menacing vision of white supremacy. They were designed to dominate both the culture and historical record. Even worse, they sent a clear message to African Americans: “Reconstruction is over and the old sheriff is back in town.” That message was underscored by Jim Crow laws and brutal lynchings.

Leaving Confederate monuments in place is a silent endorsement of this skewed view of history. Moving them to educational spaces enables them to be appropriately contextualized as historical objects. However, not every confederate statue need end up in a museum. There are perhaps a thousand confederate statues in the south still standing — they are often heavy, over eight feet tall and exhibit research takes time and resources. Exhibiting them all in museums is unfeasible, and in certain cases the best option will be to contextualize them in place through well researched explanatory plaques. A better option is to relocate them to the material culture collections of historical archives.

For example, UT removed three other Confederate statues earlier this week, which will join the Davis statue as part of the center’s extensive art and artifact collection. The center has no plans to exhibit them. However, the historical evidence encoded within them will be made available through an appointment process for scholars and students, and through digitization projects.

Their continued display on public grounds would have felt tantamount to endorsement of the prejudicial message they were designed to transmit. At the same time, they remain historically valuable and should be preserved for research and teaching — as objects that aid us as we grapple with our nation’s past. As UT’s President Gregory Fevnes said upon his decision to remove all of the university’s Confederate statues earlier this week, “We do not choose our history, but we choose what we honor and celebrate on our campus.” 

Don Carleton is the executive director of the University of Texas Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History. The Briscoe Center collects, preserves and shares historical evidence that fosters exploration of the American past. Its collections include books, photographs, documents, items of material culture, and historic buildings, as well as four Confederate statues that were formerly displayed on UT Austin’s South Mall.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.