What fate awaits the removed Confederate statues?
As civil war statues come down in the US, new uses are being sought for them
Students at the University of Texas at Austin visiting the Jefferson Davis exhibit at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University
Confederate president Jefferson Davis takes you by surprise, suddenly appearing in the corridor of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. At 8½ft tall, his copper head almost touches the ceiling.
“We had to strengthen the floor when we brought him in,” says Ben Wright, curator of an exhibition on the statue’s torrid history, of the more than half-ton rendition of this most controversial figure of the American Civil War.
When University of Texas at Austin officials took the statue down from an elevated spot overlooking the campus’s South Mall in 2015, their decision pre-empted debate currently roiling the US about whether or not to remove hundreds of Confederate statues and memorials throughout the country in the wake of deadly violence in August at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The exhibit appears to offer one solution to the controversy over what to do with removed artefacts that many still cherish and defend.
The Davis statue’s 80-year tenure at the university was always accompanied by demands to bring it down, Wright says. The calls intensified in 2015 after a shooting by a 21-year-old white supremacist inside a church in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine African-Americans.
“When the university president asked for options at the time, I suggested Davis move to the centre to become part of the university’s historical collections,” says Don Carleton, its executive director. “It has to be preserved as historical evidence. I would have been against destroying it – that would be like burning books.”
And Davis will soon be getting company.
After Charlottesville, the university decided to remove from the mall the three remaining Confederate statues (along with another non-Confederate statue, for symmetry’s sake). That leaves George Washington – who hasn’t escaped scrutiny, having owned hundreds of slaves – alone at the head of the mall.
Opinions about the university’s actions differ among those passing the empty plinths, now wrapped in plastic to obscure their previous residents’ name plaques.
“It looks very odd, like a modern art installation” says Glenn Peers, a history of art professor at the university, standing in front of a plinth. “I don’t agree with the decision. Erasing tokens of the racial past is no way to deal with that past; you’re just erasing memory.”
“I like the idea of the statues going in an exhibit or museum,” says educational psychology graduate student Anieph Gentles (22). “You shouldn’t laud these people. Statues suggest impressiveness and having done good. It’s more appropriate to show them in a place where they can teach and make an educative point.”
But whereas the removal of the Davis statue was based on the findings of a university task force established to investigate the issue, the other statues were removed hastily on the night of August 20th before the new semester began.
They included one of Robert E Lee, commander of the Confederate army, who is held by many as a symbol of the Civil War’s underappreciated nuances: he didn’t approve of secession from the Union but felt compelled by loyalty to serve his home state of Virginia, and at the Civil War’s end he rejected calls for insurgency against the Union, calling for reconciliation between both sides.
The Charlottesville rally was protesting against the removal of a Robert E Lee statue.
“I was appalled when I heard about the other statues,” says Marshall Davis, spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Texas Division, which took the university to court to keep the Davis statue in its outdoor location.
“It was done without due process, against the wishes of confederate descendants and without the consensus of the citizens of Austin. At least with Davis there was some co-ordination with the Briscoe centre and respect shown.”
History ‘ripped apart’
According to polls, many Americans agree with US president Donald Trump, who tweeted that the “history and culture of our great country [is being] ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments”.
There are at least 700 Confederate monuments in the United States – the exact number isn’t known and is probably much higher – with the majority in southern states such as Texas. Only a few have been removed.
“They’re a celebration of the confederacy and a declaration of values,” says Kevin Foster, an anthropology professor at Austin, noting most were built in the early 20th century when southern political leaders were instituting segregationist Jim Crow laws and during the civil-rights movement.
“These are not coincidences – after the 1954 supreme court case of Brown v Board of Education that desegregated schools, there was immediate pushback, with state flags altered to include parts of the Confederate flag and public buildings named after members of the Ku Klux Klan. There was a real slap-in-the-face element to it.”
For more than three decades at StudioEIS in New York they have been making sculptures of historic figures, ranging from pop and sports icons to renowned individuals such as Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
“This is a massive conundrum for the country; symbols are very important for societies,” says Ivan Schwartz, the studio’s founder and director.
“It’s an irony that, with all the debate, I find myself more intrigued by statue removal. I think they have to go. Is there a national consensus on this? I doubt that. So far the responses have been very ad hoc: some cities are removing them while in other states laws ban that.”
Effigies in the UK
The UK has its own statue controversies. At the University of Oxford, students called for a statue of empire builder Cecil Rhodes to be removed from Oriel College on the basis that it represented colonial oppression and slavery. London’s monument to Lord Nelson, which towers over Trafalgar Square, has been criticised for similar links.
“There’s a genuine concern among people on both sides of the Atlantic about where does it end,” says Wright, who is from Leicester.
“Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis led an armed rebellion against a democratically elected government to perpetuate slavery that led to the deaths of about 700,000 people,” he says. “That’s just on a different plain compared to UK statues of characters with dubious legacies. Cecil Rhodes is not a modern-day symbol of hatred.”
Currently there are no plans to exhibit the three statues coming to the Dolph Briscoe Center due to logistical and space restrictions. They will, however, be available for students and researchers to view and study.
And the centre plans to complete 360-degree digital photography of each statue to create online exhibits.
“They will be even more accessible than when they were on the mall,” Carleton says. “As symbols of public values, they had to come down. As historical artefacts they needed to be preserved. And that’s what we’ve done.”