AUSTIN, Texas — 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 counter-protester 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 Jefferson’s 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.