Powers to appoint advisory panel.
By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
A stroll past the statues shaded by live oaks along the South Mall of the University of Texas suggests that the university has a soft spot for the Confederacy. After all, four of the bronze figures were leaders of the Southern cause, including Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States, and Robert E. Lee, the chief general.
Even the Littlefield Fountain, which anchors the South Mall and at first glance appears to be a generic war memorial, is a tribute to the Confederacy, as an inscription on a stone wall makes clear without actually mentioning slavery: "To the men and women of the Confederacy who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states rights be maintained."
More than two years ago, UT’s president concluded in an open letter to the campus that many people of all races see the displays as evidence of "institutional nostalgia" for the Confederacy and its values.
"Most who receive that message are repelled," Larry Faulkner wrote.
Now, his successor, William Powers Jr., must decide what to do about it.
Faulkner had proposed rearranging the statues, and there was talk of adding plaques that would offer more detailed explanations. Some critics have suggested moving the Davis and Lee statues to a museum. Powers, who counts himself among those troubled by the displays, plans to appoint a committee of advisers early next year, probably including faculty members and students.
"The whole range of options is on the table," Powers said. "A lot of students, and especially minority students, have raised concerns. And those are understandable and legitimate concerns. On the other hand, the statues have been here for a long time, and that’s something we have to take into account as well."
The state’s other public flagship, Texas A&M University, has also struggled with its statuary. An effort to erect a likeness of Matthew Gaines, a former slave who had a role as a state senator in the establishment of A&M, stalled when it was decided to build a memorial to those killed or injured in the 1999 collapse of logs stacked for a bonfire.
At UT, student-led efforts are adding some diversity to the outdoor artwork. Students taxed themselves to raise money for a statue of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.; it was unveiled in 1999 on the East Mall. Subsequent incidents of vandalism prompted installation of a video camera and campus soul-searching about race relations.
A likeness of César Chávez, the labor and civil rights leader, is scheduled to be unveiled in the spring on the West Mall. Also in the works is a statue of Barbara Jordan, the first black woman elected to the Texas Senate and the first black woman from the South elected to Congress. A group of students recently launched a campaign for a statue of Mohandas Gandhi, whose nonviolent civil disobedience helped win independence for India and rights for minorities in South Africa.
Gandhi’s contributions to social justice inspired King, Nelson Mandela and others, said Nausheen Jivani, a sophomore majoring in political communication studies.
"In the same respect, however, an architectural representation of an Asian or Asian American figure has yet to be erected on the University of Texas campus, and a statue of Gandhi would begin to fill some of this void," she said.
The student-led initiatives are encouraging, said Charles Roeckle, the deputy to Powers.
"We need to deal with the South Mall statuary eventually, one way or another," Roeckle said. "But at the same time, I find it edifying that students are dealing with this in a very positive way."
The South Mall statues pose awkward questions of historical and artistic context.
The artist, Pompeo Coppini, intended for the figures to be grouped around the Littlefield Fountain along with other statues, including President Woodrow Wilson. Coppini thought this would show how the nation came together in World War I under Wilson, without Dixie line distinction. But his plan was underfunded, and architect Paul Cret decided in the early 1930s to distribute the statues along the South Mall in a way that left each one isolated.
"When you scatter them around the mall, it just looks like you’re paying tribute to individual people," said Don Carleton, director of UT’s Center for American History.
But grouping the statues as Coppini envisioned, without an explanatory plaque, would gloss over historical complexity, said Sanford Levinson, a professor of law at UT. Although Wilson’s presidency represented a certain spirit of national unity, Wilson was also the most racist and reactionary president since Andrew Johnson, Levinson said. Wilson screened "The Birth of a Nation," which portrayed black people as villains and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, at the White House.
Dale Baum, a history professor at A&M, said UT’s statues and fountain inscription make it arguably the most Confederate campus in the South.
The displays "should never be refashioned in line with contemporary scholarship," Baum said, "for they are living memorials to how the brief semblance of justice achieved for black Texans during Reconstruction was subsequently cruelly betrayed. This itself is a valuable lesson to learn and understand."
Patrick Slattery, a professor of the philosophy of education at A&M who has studied the statuary on both campuses, would like to see contemporary figures and memorials added as well as more complex signage.
"Perhaps it is time to move the statue of Jefferson Davis at UT and the statue of Sul Ross at A&M to a suitable museum space with a robust historical analysis from several perspectives," Slattery said. "Perhaps Barbara Jordan and Matthew Gaines should stand on these pedestals for the next 50 years."
Any such effort probably would produce criticism from Southern heritage groups and other organizations. Lawrence Sullivan "Sul" Ross, who was a general in the Confederate army, governor of Texas and president of A&M, is something of a beloved figure on campus.
Students leave pennies at the base of his statue for good luck on exams.
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