So let me get this right. Fifty years from now, some young doofus reporter from Detroit moves here, looks around town and thinks, "Oh, just like Indianapolis."
He not only does not see that this city’s economy was created by slave labor before the Civil War, but he also doesn’t see that Dallas remained a loyal bastion of the slave-based Confederacy during the war, and he doesn’t pick up hints that Confederate sympathies must have endured well into the 21st century.
He can see all of that now just by driving around and looking at statues. OK, granted, my theoretical doofus from Detroit, modeled on me when I came here many years ago, won’t get much out of his driving tour if he doesn’t already have some rudimentary sense of American history. But let’s pretend he does. Maybe he was lucky enough to have a great, down-the-middle, intellectually honest but rigorous American history teacher in high school who taught straight from Commager and Morison’s The Growth of the American Republic.
So he knows Robert E. Lee a little bit. He also has some picture in his head of the horrors of slavery. He knows Lee was a complicated, very American figure with redeeming qualities. And let’s pretend our theoretical doofus also has some awareness that racism was never and is not now limited to the American South, nor was slavery.
Here he is, driving around, driving around, the big doofus. He comes to Lee Park on Turtle Creek. Gets out of his car. Wanders into the park. And there it is.
Standing before the ignorant doofus, looming over him larger than life, is a romantic statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, son of Revolutionary War officer Henry (“Light Horse Harry”) Lee III. Robert E. Lee was second in his class at West Point, later commander of West Point and a hero of the Mexican-American War. Finally, as shown in the statue at Lee Park of Lee astride his horse Traveller, he was commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, the man who surrendered the South to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
Well, maybe not the whole South. In the states where most of the war was fought, the outcome at Appomattox must have been hard to miss or misconstrue. It was the end, defeat, decimation. But Texas was always an outlier, a distant cousin with complicated loyalties.
Let’s imagine the newcomer wonders about this statue. Something about it doesn’t look quite old enough, anyway. It’s too sleek — almost a faint whiff of moderne. Has it really been here since the late 19th century?
Well, no. In fact, this park, created as a private amenity in 1909, was called something else until 1936, when the statue was installed and the park rechristened, literally, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom most people remember now as a founder of modern American liberalism.
Roosevelt visited for the unveiling of this statue. In his remarks, he called Lee “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.”
So not one of our greatest American Jews, then. Good to know. Nor was he one of our greatest American Muslims. But a Christian. And the statue of this great Christian dates only to 1936 — rather a long time after Appomattox, it would seem.
Oh, and here’s another interesting factoid: The park, which is beautifully kept, was redone in the late 1990s under the aegis of a group founded in 1995. That really brings it up to date, does it not?
So that’s Lee. What about slavery? Slaves were force-marched to Texas in the years before the Civil War, mainly by smaller, new-money planters who assumed there would be a war and the South would lose. They also assumed Texas would revert to its original status as an independent, slave-based republic after the inevitable defeat. Taking slaves to Texas was sort of a hedge against history.
Many contemporary observers and travelers before the war created written records of slavery in Texas, comparing it with slavery in the Old South. The overwhelming consensus was that slavery here was far worse than there.
In the 1930s, the federal Works Progress Administration paid out-of-work writers and journalists to travel the nation and interview former slaves as they entered old age. One of the recurring themes recorded by the interviewers came from former slaves, interviewed all over the country, who had been marched to Texas in the years before the war.
This is a typical account from the transcripts of those interviews, called the “Slave Narratives":
“Boss, I was born in Georgia in Norcross. … My father’s name was Roger Stielszen, and my mother’s name was Betty. Massa Earl Stielszen … got killed, and my sister and I went to his son. He was a killer.
“He got in trouble in Georgia and got himself two good-stepping horses and the covered wagon. Then he chained all his slaves around the necks and fastened the chains to his horses and made them all walk all the way to Texas.
“Massa had a great long whip plaited out of rawhide, and when one of the n——s fell behind or gave out, he hit him with that whip. It took the hide every time he hit a n——r.
“Mother, she gave out on the way, about the line of Texas. Her feet got raw and bleeding, and her legs swelled plumb out of shape. Then massa, he just took out his gun and shot her, and whilst she lay dying he kicked her two, three times and said, ‘Damn n——r that can’t stand nothing.’
“Boss, you know that man, he wouldn’t bury Mother, just left her laying where he shot her at. You know, then there wasn’t any law against killing n——r slaves.”
The statue of Lee on Traveller, straight in the saddle, caped like Superman and leading a loyal soldier to his doom, is a window on all of this. And it’s all very complicated.
The eulogy by FDR, the relative lateness of the park’s creation and the fact that it was lovingly and euphemistically restored so recently: What all of this should tell us is that, like our imaginary Detroit dude, we really do not get much of this history yet. Were we not told? Did we skip school that day? Did we not want to know? Is something strange still going on?
We might assume the story of slavery in our city has not been explored, preserved or told very well because white people are ashamed of it. That would be somewhere between half and three-quarters true. The history of slavery also is not well known or understood in much of black Dallas, where a belief persists that slavery was much worse in the Old South than here.
Political statuary, which is what the Lee statue is, always starts out telling us what to think. Its nature is intimidation, like a pointed gun or a raised whip. I remember being in Budapest, Hungary, with my wife before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We wandered into a square walled with massive statuary depicting Soviet soldiers and big guns. The statuary shouted, “Be afraid.” I was.
Yesterday I searched online for those walls, and I think I may have found a picture of a fragment of them, relegated to a field or storage area in Budapest’s Memento Park, where statues from the Soviet era are preserved. Those statues are not preserved, by the way, to bring back fond memories.
When we move to the next chapter of history, political statues take on new, much more nuanced voices. They tell us, “This is what people used to tell us to believe. This is what people used to say.” When statues can no longer make us afraid, they make us think.
The Lee statue can’t bring back slavery. It doesn’t diminish black people. It lacks that power. If it says anything about white people — the fact that it is so new and that white devotion to it so recent — it might say there must still be some really weird white people in Dallas. That’s good to know, too, is it not? Maybe they are some of our greatest American weird people.
I believe it’s a huge mistake to take these statues down. We’re too comfortable not knowing what they have to tell us. Maybe after we have listened to them thoroughly, we can think about moving them to their own park, as Budapest has done. But we should never erase the past, especially not when we still understand it so poorly.
The past is tough. It’s twisted. Some of it was heroic and romantic. Much of it was dark and depraved. And it went on for a long time — right up until yesterday. We should look at the statues of the past and wonder why we think today is suddenly so different.
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