University of Texas President Gregory L. Fenves abruptly announced late Sunday that four statues of people with Confederate ties would be removed immediately from the school’s South Mall.
The bronze likenesses of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston and Confederate Postmaster John H. Reagan will be relocated to the university’s Briscoe Center for American History, Fenves said. The statue of James Stephen Hogg, the first native-born governor of Texas and the son of a Confederate general, will be considered for re-installation at another campus site, he said.
The removal of the statues under cover of darkness comes in the wake of protests a week earlier by white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., that turned violent, with one counterprotester killed and numerous others injured when a man with far-right leanings allegedly drove his car into a crowd.
“The horrific displays of hatred at the University of Virginia and in Charlottesville shocked and saddened the nation,” Fenves said in a message to the university community. “These events make it clear, now more than ever, that Confederate monuments have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism.”
UT spokesman Gary Susswein said the removal work was being done after dark and without advance warning for public safety reasons. The work was expected to begin late Sunday and take several hours. In Baltimore, where four Confederacy-related monuments were hauled away on trucks under cover of darkness late Tuesday night and early Wednesday, Mayor Catherine Pugh had said she was concerned about possible violence.
Fenves had a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis removed from the Main Mall two years ago, and it now resides in the university’s Briscoe center. A year ago, he had an inscription honoring the Confederacy and Southern pride removed from the South Mall after earlier saying it would remain in place.
When Davis' statue was taken down, Fenves said he was leaving the Lee, Johnston, Reagan and Hogg statues at the South Mall because those individuals had deeper ties in Texas. But Charlottesville changed everything, and the UT president has now decided that they all must go from their place of honor. Commencement takes place on the Main and South Malls, in the shadow of the Tower.
“The historical and cultural significance of the Confederate statues on our campus — and the connections that individuals have with them — are severely compromised by what they symbolize,” Fenves said. “Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans. That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry.”
He added, “The University of Texas at Austin has a duty to preserve and study history. But our duty also compels us to acknowledge that those parts of our history that run counter to the university’s core values, the values of our state and the enduring values of our nation do not belong on pedestals in the heart of the Forty Acres.”
The events in Charlottesville no doubt touched a personal nerve for Fenves, who is Jewish. His father is a Holocaust survivor, having been imprisoned in Auschwitz. Some of the far-right marchers in Charlottesville raised their arms in the Nazi salute and shouted anti-Jewish phrases.
UT was influenced in its early days by sympathizers with the Confederacy, including George Littlefield, a Confederate officer, UT regent and benefactor who nearly 100 years ago commissioned the various statues. The sculptor, Pompeo Coppini, expressed prescient misgivings, writing, “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.”
An advisory panel and a Student Government resolution had urged the UT president two years ago to remove the Davis statue at a time of reduced tolerance for Confederate symbols after the fatal shooting of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina. The issue has special resonance for UT, which didn’t admit blacks until it was forced to do so in 1950 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Fenves said he has spoken with student leaders, students, faculty members, staff members and alumni in recent days to get their viewsafter what he described as “the revelatory events in Charlottesville.” He said he also revisited the advisory panel’s 2015 report.
At the time he had Davis’ statue taken down, Fenves also removed a statue of President Woodrow Wilson, which stood opposite that of the Confederate leader, to maintain symmetry on the Main Mall. The Wilson statue is currently in storage. The Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans tried unsuccessfully to get the courts to block the removal of Davis’ statue.
Kirk Lyons, the lawyer who represented the Sons of Confederate Veterans, condemned the university's decision to remove the remaining statues. "They are spitting on Littlefield's grave. They should be ashamed of themselves," Lyons said, pledging to round up support for demanding that state lawmakers cut off funding to UT until the statues are put back.
Gov. Greg Abbott said last week that he opposed removing Confederate monuments, saying it "won't erase our nation's past, and it doesn't advance our nation's future." His spokesman declined to elaborate late Sunday, saying he would need to confer with the governor.
Aside from media, there are very few students on campus to witness the removal of the statues, despite the university having sent a notice by email to the entire student body.
Education Junior Ixchel Perez said she saw the message and came down to witness the move.
"This is definitely history," she said. "I want to see this because it's meaningful."
Perez stood opposite the UT Tower with friend Jesus Castellano, an economics senior, who called the move a "good decision."
"It puts UT in a position that says what is going on in Charlottesville is not okay and we're going to do something about it," he said. "Our student body isn't going to sit around and let things like Charlottesville happen."
- Austin American-Statesman staff writer Mary Huber contributed to this report.