The drive to remove Texas memorials celebrating the South's war to keep Black people enslaved and brutalized arrived at the Texas Senate this week. It was met with an interesting riposte: Not all of the white rebels who fought on the side that instigated the Civil War, which killed more than 600,000 Americans, were that bad.
Monday, a special Senate committee met in the state Capitol to discuss the future of controversial Confederate artwork hanging in the Senate Chamber.
It was the inaugural meeting of the Senate Chamber Review Committee, which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick created last year to review the history and placement of art and décor in the Texas Senate. And as Dallas state Sen. Royce West noted, it was also the first time in 19 years that two African Americans had served on the same committee: West and Houston state Sen. Borris Miles.
Miles said it’s unfortunate that paintings of Confederate leaders are the subject they’re having to address in 2020. Three such portraits hang in the Senate Chamber: President Jefferson Davis, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston and Postmaster General John H. Reagan.
West said the paintings should be put in the proper context and location, such as a museum.
“The big issue here is whether or not those persons … should be reflected in the history as depicted here in the Capitol, given what the Civil War was all about,” he said.
Calls for the dismantling of Confederate monuments crescendoed following the police killing of George Floyd in May, which ushered in a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests. Several Confederate monuments have been removed in North Texas this year, including ones in Dallas, Fort Worth, Denton and Gainesville.
In July, eight Democratic state lawmakers also called for the removal of seven Confederate memorials from Texas’ Capitol grounds.
Present via Zoom at Monday’s meeting was Dealey Herndon, who was the executive director of the State Preservation Board from 1991-1995. She said that although slavery was undoubtedly wrong, she doesn’t personally support removing Confederate relics because she’s worried it would “take away our history.” (How, exactly, she didn't say. Presumably, entire swaths of American history exist, are remembered and studied without being celebrated on the walls of the Texas Senate, which is a place of honor, not a historical reference book.)
When considering whether to remove a Confederate memorial, it’s important to investigate the individual’s past to see whether they were a good person, Herndon said. They could have done great things for Texas even if they served in the Confederacy, she added.
(Reagan, one of the Confederate cabinet members to flee with Davis at war's end, was a founder of the Texas State Historical Society, for example. He also was a prominent promulgator of the false "Lost Cause" version of history that denied slavery's role in the war. And, he was a firm advocate of withholding the dignities and rights of citizenship, including the vote, from Black people. Not to mention that he was a traitor.)
Herndon said that should the Senate decide to change something in the chamber, the State Preservation Board likely wouldn’t object.
West thanked Herndon for her perspective and said he agreed that history shouldn’t be "whitewashed." When considering memorials’ removal, research should be conducted to understand what the individual thought about slavery, he said.
Tuesday, West told the Observer such research will ultimately bolster arguments for the removal of offensive memorials.
“Nothing gets done in this legislative body without Republican support,” West said. “So if we have individuals displayed there in the Senate, we need to know a little bit more about their history and whether they were just zealots, as relates to the issue of slavery, or whether they didn’t agree with secession, for example.”
West added that Confederate Gen. Johnston had been opposed to secession.
(Opposed intellectually, perhaps. Physically, Johnston was a Confederate commander at the Battle of Shiloh, where 23,000 Americans died, including Johnston.)
Miles told the Observer that his African American colleague shouldn’t have to have Johnston’s portrait serve as his backdrop every time he speaks on the Senate floor. It’s not a comfortable feeling to look up and be surrounded by people who enslaved their ancestors, he said.
While many white people want to remember their history, Miles said they should recognize there’s some history that African Americans are trying to forget.
Having these Confederates memorialized celebrates them, or at least paints them in a positive light, he said. Although he said he’s not an art critic, Miles believes those portraits would be more appropriate in a museum rather than the Senate Chamber.
“The Capitol is the people’s house of the state of Texas, and that includes everybody — Black, white, brown, purple, yellow, OK?” Miles said. “None of our Texans should be offended when they enter their house.”
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