Written in Stone
History of racism lives on in UT monuments
This spring, the University of Texas at Austin made national headlines for a racist frat party, and then again for the unlikely success of newly elected, satirical student government President Xavier Rotnofsky and Vice President Rohit Mandalapu. Now, some UT students – the new student government included – are generating attention once more by advocating for the removal of the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, one of several Confederate monuments that stand tall on the campus. As the student body pushes for the Davis statue's removal, UT is confronting its legacy of racism, immortalized in those monuments.
Opinions on the Confederate monuments differ. Student government leaders Rotnofsky and Mandalapu, who made the Davis statue an issue in their campaign, see them as putting racism on a pedestal. Gary Bledsoe of the Texas NAACP has called them "offensive." But others, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Texas, see the statues as an important piece of history and "not a matter of opinion," according to spokesperson Marshall Davis, who was quoted in a Huffington Post article earlier this year.
The Long Shadow of the Confederacy
Major George Washington Littlefield left behind a long legacy on the UT campus. Littlefield was born in 1842 in Mississippi, but moved to Texas as a child. He grew up on a plantation and at one point owned slaves. During the Civil War, Littlefield fought with Terry's Texas Rangers for the Confederacy – an allegiance which he would spend much of his life (and much of his money) defending. (Even today, Austin's Sons of Confederate Veterans camp is named after Littlefield.)
After the war, Littlefield became a highly successful businessman, which enabled him to have incredible influence over the university. In 1911, he was appointed as a regent, and his donations to the university over the next nine years – until his death in 1920 – were unmatched. Simply walk around campus and you can't miss his influence: the Littlefield cafe, the Littlefield dorm, the Littlefield House, and, of course, the Littlefield Fountain, which is accompanied by the Confederate statues on the South Mall.
As alumni publication the Alcalde put it in 2007, Littlefield "dedicated much of his fortune to ensuring that the University of Texas was sufficiently branded as a South-centric institution." Littlefield donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to combat "what he considered unfair treatment of the South in the standard histories that were pouring out of northern universities." The inscription on his namesake fountain honors the South's fight for secession: "To the men and women of the Confederacy, who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states' rights be maintained and who, not dismayed by defeat nor discouraged by misrule, builded from the ruins of a devastating war a greater South and to the men and women of the nation who gave of their possessions and of their lives [so] that free government be made secure to the peoples of the earth this memorial is dedicated." Left unmentioned is the issue of slavery.
While Littlefield has unquestionably left his mark on the campus, his vision was not completely fulfilled. Originally, Littlefield reached out to Pompeo Coppini, an Italian-born sculptor living in San Antonio, to build an arch at the university's south entrance honoring his heroes, who all happened to be members of the Confederacy: President Jefferson Davis, Postmaster General John H. Reagan, and generals Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston. After building a model, Coppini realized that the arch would be more expensive than Littlefield wanted. As an alternative, Coppini suggested building a fountain.
But that wasn't Coppini's only recommendation. Coppini wanted to honor the Americans involved in World War I, including President Woodrow Wilson, because he believed the war showed that "all past regional differences have disappeared and we are now one welded nation." One of Coppini's comments to Littlefield is especially notable today: "As time goes by, they will look to the Civil War as a blot on the pages of American history, and the Littlefield Memorial will be resented as keeping up the hatred between the Northern and Southern states."
The end result, however, didn't completely match up with anyone's plan for the monuments. Littlefield died in 1920, over a decade before the project was finished. In addition to the project's financial problems, architect Paul Cret, hired by the university to help design the campus layout, significantly changed the final design. After reviewing plans for the Littlefield Gateway, Cret thought that the six statues (four Confederates along with Woodrow Wilson and Governor James Stephen Hogg, a UT benefactor and the first native Governor of Texas) were too crowded around the fountain, and decided instead to spread them out around the South Mall. The fountain was eventually completed in the fall of 1932, and was first turned on in March 1933. (The Daughters of the American Revolution-funded George Washington statue on the South Mall, also sculpted by Coppini, wasn't erected until 1955.)
While Coppini wanted the statues together to symbolize the reunification of America, Cret's decision essentially eliminated that intended symbolism, leaving the monuments as they stand now, without context. Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center for American History at UT-Austin, told USA Today that Coppini's design "was not conceived as a tribute to the confederacy, it was used to show reconciliation." And Coppini himself ended up regretting the finished work; he wrote to a state senator, "After years of fighting, I was forced to accept the dismemberment of my original planned memorial, throwing to the four winds my conception and making of the various pieces of bronze just a senseless decoration of the campus."
But even Coppini's original intention of representing "reunification" has its issues. Edmund "Ted" Gordon, chair of the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies (and an AISD trustee), notes that Wilson re-segregated the military and the federal government, and "got the United States involved in what was essentially an imperialist war." He points out that Wilson praised the racist, pro-Ku Klux Klan film The Birth of a Nation (one of the very first films to be shown at the White House), and that, in the film, Wilson is even quoted in support of the KKK. The film, Gordon adds, "was released to great acclaim in the South, including Texas, in 1915, and is a model for understanding what many on the UT campus at the time, including Littlefield, meant to not only memorialize but to celebrate." If it was truly about reunification, Gordon wonders, why not build a statue of Abraham Lincoln?
Regardless of how the Confederate statues are arranged on the South Mall, some believe that it's also notable that the main building faces south as well. And while the entrances to many buildings on campus face east and west, it's difficult to find any building that faces north. Of course, as Gordon notes, there are practical reasons for the Southern-centric design. For one, the city of Austin is south of the university, and because the city is on the north bank of the river, the city itself also faces south. But for Gordon and others, there's a deeper, more troubling symbolism behind it as well. Acknowledging the geographical reasons, Gordon believes that Confederate sympathizers, such as Littlefield, understood and intended the Southern/Confederate symbolism, and had hoped "to configure the University (and really the nation as a whole) as a neo-Confederate enterprise." Gordon also notes that there are no statues of Texas' founding fathers like Sam Houston or Stephen F. Austin: "This is not about Texas nationalism. It is about the Confederacy. There's only one of those statues that's not a Confederate – that's Governor Hogg – but everybody else who was put up in that initial tableau was a Confederate, other than Wilson."
Stay or Go
At the end of March, UT's student government passed a resolution in support of removing the Jefferson Davis statue from campus, following through on one of Rotnofsky and Mandalapu's main campaign platform points.
To be clear, student government has no real power over the situation. While the campaign and resolution have made national news, attention is all the student government can direct. UT Director of Media Relations Gary Susswein said in a statement: "As with all Student Government proposals, this one has been sent to university administrators who will review and carefully consider it." Susswein also noted that, with UT President Bill Powers on his way out, the decision likely won't be made until new president Gregory Fenves takes over, and that the issue has come up before: "In previous decades, there have been proposals to remove the statue. The university administration chose at those times to leave it in place but also to emphasize the university's values by adding prominently placed statues of such leaders as Martin Luther King and Barbara Jordan."
Gordon told the Chronicle that efforts have been made to address, if not remove, the statues since at least the late Sixties.
In the late Eighties and early Nineties, a time when multiple fraternity-involved racist incidents created a center of controversy, students debated the merits of the Confederate statues in opinion pieces for UT student newspaper The Daily Texan. And protests against the statues weren't limited to words. During that time, the statues were frequent targets of vandalism (as they have been recently). In fact, Tony Barrueta, then a second-year law student, launched a hunger strike to urge university officials to remove the Jeff Davis statue. The strike failed, and the Confederate statues still watch over UT's South Mall.
In 2001, UT journalism professor Bob Jensen wrote in a Dallas Morning News editorial that he was "ashamed of the four statues of Confederate politicians and soldiers on campus," and that a petition was being made, "asking the university to appoint a commission to consider what to do with the statues that stand in prominent positions on the campus' South Mall."
In the spring of 2003, around the same time when two fraternities were being penalized for racially offensive costumes and the campus' MLK statue had been defaced with spray paint, then-UT president Larry Faulkner put together a Task Force on Racial Respect and Fairness. The task force suggested moving the statues in order to limit "institutional nostalgia for the Confederacy and its values," as Faulkner put it. In 2004, Faulkner wrote an 18-page letter in response to the report. In it, he argued that five competing values should be considered: 1) a hospitable environment, 2) understanding history in human terms, 3) the academic instinct to preserve the cultural record, 4) institutional continuity, i.e. letting the decisions of previous generations stand, and 5) respect for artistic creation.
To address the issue, Faulkner recommended bringing the statues together around the fountain, as Coppini originally intended, and adding plaques explaining the monument's original intention and context. But after more than two years, nothing was done.
In 2006, newly appointed UT President Bill Powers gathered a panel to decide how to handle the four Confederate statues. In a 2013 interview, Powers recalled that the group recommended focusing on the positive steps that had been taken toward diversity, such as UT's newer monuments and programs. Powers recognizes that the statues do not present a message that the university wants to convey – one of Rotnofsky and Mandalapu's arguments for their removal – but he believes they do represent the university's past, for better or worse. But Rotnofsky doesn't want to destroy the Davis statue. Instead, he told the Chronicle in an email, it should be moved to a museum such as the Bullock Texas State History Museum. "Museums preserve history and provide context," he said. "The Davis statue as it currently stands functions as a commemorative piece, not a historical one."
Gordon, on the other hand, told the Chronicle he doesn't necessarily support taking the statues down; rather, he's interested in people "understanding what they mean and what they symbolize in the context of the construction of what we now have at the University of Texas."
"The kinds of interpersonal racism that used to exist in this state have been ameliorated to a certain extent, but institutionalized racism is still with us," said Gordon. "And institutionalized racism is the way in which the racial hierarchies of the past have been sedimented into our everyday culture." He continued, "The statues and the names of buildings and all that are evidence of the way in which institutionalized racism remains as a historical deposit within our culture."
Marshall Davis of the Sons of Confederate Veterans supports UT's past decisions to keep the statues on the mall. "We don't want to impede anyone else from honoring their heroes. We would like to honor our heroes with the same consideration, tolerance and diversity," he told The Huffington Post. But not everyone buys that argument. While admitting that analogies to Nazi Germany are often overblown, Jensen says that the comparison is applicable in this case. For the Sons of Confederate Veterans to claim that their statues are about heritage and history, not supporting hate or racism or slavery, would be similar, he says, to a scenario where the "Sons of Nazi Veterans" erect statues of Nazis, in honor of their history and heritage, but elide their anti-semitism and the Holocaust.
Still, some students wonder why the Davis statue is the only one whose place on campus is being debated. After all, George Washington himself was a slave owner, and Woodrow Wilson, as America's 28th president, argued that "segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded." Given his statue's presence on a university campus, Wilson's comments as president of Princeton University are also noteworthy: "The whole temper and tradition of the place [Princeton] are such that no Negro has ever applied for admission, and it seems unlikely that the question will ever assume practical form."
But racist presidents aren't in the same category as those who went so far in their defense of slavery as to secede. "No matter how much one wants to talk about states' rights, one of the primary reasons the Confederacy fought was to defend slavery and white supremacy," Jensen wrote in his 2001 op-ed. "The fact that many Northerners also were racists doesn't change that simple truth." Still, Jensen told the Chronicle this week he would be happy to replace the Washington and Wilson statues as well.
UT's History: Separate and Unequal
In 1883, the University of Texas at Austin officially opened, just as Jim Crow laws were being introduced in the South. During the first academic year, 1883-84, the university had eight professors, four assistants, a proctor, and 221 enrolled students – all of whom were white. The university was created in the Texas Constitution of 1876, which ordered the Legislature to establish a "university of the first class." That same article of the constitution specified that a separate college or branch university should be established "for the instruction of the colored youths of the State." Of course, there was a catch: "provided, that no tax shall be levied, and no money appropriated out of the general revenue." It soon became clear that a "separate but equal" black university would not be built.
In fact, UT-Austin didn't have a single black student until the 1950-51 school year, when Heman Marion Sweatt and several other black students enrolled following the 1950 Supreme Court decision in Sweatt v. Painter.
Sweatt, the grandson of a slave, applied for admission to UT's law school in 1946. No one doubted his qualifications. Even then-UT President Theophilus S. Painter, who would later be the defendant in Sweatt's lawsuit, wrote in a letter to Texas Attorney General Grover Sellers that Sweatt "is a citizen of Texas and duly qualified for admission to the Law School at the University of Texas, save and except for the fact that he is a negro." Sweatt and the NAACP challenged the "separate but equal" doctrine that was established in 1896's Plessy v. Ferguson. Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African-American Supreme Court justice, presented his case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Sweatt should be admitted to the school because of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The Sweatt case was highly influential in the later, more monumental 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which officially banned school segregation altogether.
Given Sweatt and Painter's respective legacies, the way the university has chosen to commemorate them is curious. Sure, the university's Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE) hosts an annual Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights, and the DDCE recently recognized President Bill Powers with the Heman Marion Sweatt Legacy Award for "his tireless efforts in championing the university's diversity and inclusion initiatives." However, while a symposium and an award are nice, the memory of Theophilus S. Painter, the man who defended segregation, is much more vivid on campus. In addition to the T.S. Painter Centennial Professorship (established in 1984) named in his honor, the physics building was renamed Painter Hall in 1974.
Just a year earlier, in 1973, UT had named its mathematics building in honor of Robert Lee Moore, an accomplished mathematician who was also a strong segregationist. He famously walked out of lectures by black speakers, and refused to teach any black students. Robert Lee Moore Hall still stands, name unchanged, on campus.
However, the name of at least one building has changed: Before becoming the Creekside Residence Hall in 2010, Simkins Hall honored William Stewart Simkins, "a criminal and a terrorist, a gun-toting, mask-wearing, night-riding Klansman," Tom Russell, a University of Denver law professor who led the campaign for a name change, told Law Week Colorado in 2010. Simkins was a Confederate soldier, a law professor at UT for 30 years, and a co-founder of Florida's Ku Klux Klan, along with his brother Eldred, who became a UT System Regent. Within five weeks of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the UT faculty named its new dormitory after Simkins, who was unapologetic in his violent racism. After Simkins' involvement with the KKK resurfaced in 2010, President Powers proposed changing the dorm's name, saying, "An institution like ours is shaped by its history, but it need not be encumbered by it."
Gordon, similar to his stance on the Confederate statues, opposed changing the name of Simkins Hall. "Without the statues or without the names there, then it's more difficult to have these conversations," said Gordon, who has long led racial geography tours around campus to draw attention to these issues.
Progress Made, but Incomplete
The university has achieved some balance between the monuments that honor racists, and those that honor champions of equality. In the Seventies, the UT System Board of Regents unanimously voted to name UT's new library the Perry-Castañeda Library, in honor of UT professors Ervin S. Perry and Carlos E. Castañeda. According to the PCL's website, Perry was "the first African American to be appointed to the academic rank of professor" at UT, and Castañeda "played a central role in the early development of the Benson Latin American Collection."
And in 1999, after 12 years of student efforts, UT unveiled a statue of Martin Luther King Jr., made by artists Jeffrey Varilla and Anna Koh-Varilla. For the first time in its (then) 116-year history, the campus had a statue honoring an African-American. Located in the East Mall, the MLK statue is facing east where, as UT Alumnus Gabriel Daniel Solis wrote for the Huffington Post, "gentrification, fueled in large part by the dominating presence of the University, continues to displace low-income black and Latino families that have historically lived there but cannot afford soaring house prices, rents and property taxes."
In October 2007, the university unveiled its Cesar Chavez statue on the West Mall. For the first time in its (then) 123-year history, the campus had a statue honoring a Latino. The project began in 2003, 10 years after Chavez's death, and was also largely funded by students. And in April 2009, the university unveiled its statue of Barbara Jordan, the first statue on campus of a woman. Jordan was the first African-American woman from the South to serve in Congress.
More importantly, the university has, as associate professor Dr. Richard Reddick noted, "institutionalized many initiatives and programs, in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and the Provost's Office (and other units), that support underrepresented students." For example, Gordon notes that his Department of African and African Diaspora Studies was established in 2010, "devoted to studying the experiences of African Americans, indigenous Africans and people of African descent around the world and an affiliated institute that will focus on urban policy," according to the UT press release. Furthermore, UT established the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies in 2014, the first academic department in America designed to take "a comprehensive look at the lives, cultures and histories of Mexican American and Latino populations."
Of course, the work is far from complete. Reddick told the Chronicle in March that he's "committed, along with many students, faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni, to seeing the University become more diverse."
Regardless of statues and organizations and programs, many black students still often feel out of place and unwelcome at UT. For example, Ashley Reed, a UT senior, told the Chronicle that she's often the only black person in her class, even in some of her larger, 300-student lecture classes. "It's really jarring when no one in the class looks like you," she said. Even Reddick admits that "percentage-wise, UT's black student population is about the same as it was when I graduated in 1995 – somewhere between 4 and 5 percent."
Indeed, although desegregation began in the Fifties, only 3.7% of UT's 48,000 students in 1990 were black. Now, in 2015, the student body is 4.1% black and the faculty is 3.8% black. (The population of Texas, for reference, is 12.4% black.) And while UT has more Hispanics (around 19%), Latinos are still hugely underrepresented compared to the state population, which is 38% Latino.
But progress is a hard term to define. While the diversity numbers seem low, it's still true that, as the Alcalde put it in 1990: "UT had more black and Hispanic students than any other major comprehensive university in the U.S. and ranked third in percentage ratio of minorities to the whole student body. It ranked ninth in the number of enrolled blacks and was first in the number of Hispanics." Even today, UT is one of the top universities "where students are most likely to encounter undergraduates from racial or ethnic groups different from their own."
The legacy of racism is bigger than Jefferson Davis, or any of the other monuments. Jensen admits that, obviously, removing the statues won't eliminate racism, but that doesn't mean it isn't an important, symbolic step. In the end, as Reed put it: It may take years or even decades to truly transform the day-to-day experiences for students of color at UT, but removing the statue would at least be a step in the right direction.
Like Reed, Gordon questions whether taking them down – or leaving them up –will change anything for minority students in their day-to-day lives. However, "drawing attention to why they're there, who they are, what the history of that is," also "draws attention to what the basic ethos of the University was when it was created, and how that ethos has evolved over time," and thus "provides an impetus for changing those micro-aggressions."
"The thing that's important to me is that people recognize that the built environment of the University of Texas is saturated with its past history, and a key aspect of that past history is anti-black racism," said Gordon. "When we pass the Confederate statues, we're often not aware or conscious of the symbology of that or why they are there, though the history of anti-black racism is contained within them. Similarly, the daily interpersonal interactions we have are also not innocent of the past, and they need to be understood in the same kind of way."
Asked if he's confident that the Davis statue will be removed, Rotnofsky said: "I'm optimistic that something good will come out of all this. It has already sparked dialogue, which is great. If administration decides to follow through with the statue's removal that would be an incredible step of progress for the university."
Monuments and Race at UT : A Timeline
1842: Major George Washington Littlefield born
1883: The University of Texas opens
1911: Littlefield appointed as regent
1920: Littlefield's death
1932: Littlefield Fountain unveiled
1946: Heman Marion Sweatt denied entry to UT Law
1950: Sweatt v. Painter: Supreme Court rules UT must admit qualified African- American students
1954: Brown v. Board of Education: Supreme Court rules that public schools must be desegregated
1999: MLK Jr. statue unveiled
2003: MLK Jr. statue defaced (it was defaced again in 2004)
2004: Then-UT President Larry Faulkner's Task Force on Racial Respect and Fairness releases its report
2006: UT President Bill Powers convenes a panel to produce recommendations for the Confederate statues
2007: Cesar Chavez statue unveiled
2009: Barbara Jordan statue unveiled
2010: Simkins Hall, named after Confederate soldier and Florida Klan founder William Stewart Simkins, is renamed Creekside Residence Hall
2015: Student government passes resolution to remove Jefferson Davis statue
Jefferson Davis, 1807-89: President of the Confederacy.
Albert Sidney Johnston, 1803-62: Commander of the Confederacy's Western Armies, and the highest-ranking officer to be killed during the Civil War.
Robert E. Lee, 1807-70: General-in-Chief of the Confederate Army.
George Washington Littlefield, 1842-1920: Confederate major, UT benefactor – he donated more money to the university than anyone else at that time – and staunch defender of the Confederacy.
John H. Reagan, 1818-1905: Texan, U.S. Senator, then Postmaster General for the Confederacy, and then U.S. Congressman after the end of the Civil War.
Robert Lee Moore, 1882-1974: Math prodigy, UT professor from 1920-69, known both for his dynamic style and his refusal to teach African-American students.
Theophilus S. Painter, 1889-1969: UT professor, then UT president. It was during his presidency that Heman Marion Sweatt was denied admission to UT Law because he was African-American.
Barbara Jordan, 1936-96: First African-American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, and the first African-American woman from the South elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ervin S. Perry, 1935-70: First African-American professor at UT.
THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS
Carlos Castañeda, 1896-1958: Mexican immigrant, curator of UT's Latin American Collection, UT professor, and Mexican-American civil rights activist.
Cesar Chavez, 1927-93: labor and civil rights activist, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union.
Martin Luther King Jr., 1929-68: Baptist minister and America's most prominent civil rights leader, assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
Malcolm X, 1925-65: African-American civil rights leader, assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam.
A complete photo gallery of the UT monuments honoring these men and one woman is posted online at austinchronicle.com/photos.
Mac McCann is a staff writer at the Texas Travesty, which supported the satirical candidates for UT student government.