This post has been updated.
The University of Texas will move a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from a prominent outdoor mall on its Austin campus to an indoor historical exhibit, the latest sign of a rapid national shift in attitudes about the public display of imagery related to the Southern rebellion.
The move, which UT President Gregory L. Fenves announced Thursday, follows the recent decision in South Carolina to remove a Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds after the massacre of nine worshipers at a historic black church in Charleston. A white gunman linked to a racist manifesto was charged in the June slayings.
Nationwide there has been a growing move to reevaluate other displays of Confederate symbols that are seen as racially divisive, and the issue of how to teach the Civil War to students has re-emerged. Texas officials are among those who have said that its public schools should teach that slavery was a “side issue” to the Civil War.
At UT, the newly elected leaders of student government had made a serious pledge to remove the Davis statue as part of their otherwise humorous run for office. Xavier Rotnofsky and Rohit Mandalapu — now president and vice president of the student government and writers for the Texas Travesty, a satire newspaper — urged the student government to pass a resolution in favor of removing the statue. And the student government did.
“It’s been a running joke within the Travesty, about the absurdity of Confederate statues being so prominent on campus,” Rotnofsky, 21, from Laredo, Texas, told The Washington Post in July. “We knew that none of the other candidates would talk about that.”
The Davis statue, on display since 1933, has been controversial in recent years. Critics said it honors a man who not only fought for slavery but also was a traitor to his country. The breakthrough for their viewpoint came after the Charleston massacre.
On Thursday, Rotnofsky praised the UT president’s action. “It’s incredible,” he said. In its outdoor location, Rotnofsky said, the Davis statue had sent “the wrong message, contradictory to what the university stands for.”
With Fenves’s announcement, the Davis statue now will be moved from the Main Mall to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. There, it will become part of a new educational exhibit.
Davis, a native of Kentucky, was a U.S. senator from Mississippi before that state seceded and he became the leader of the pro-slavery Confederacy. The Davis statue, along with others honoring Confederate leaders on campus, was vandalized in June, with “Black lives matter” scrawled on its base, after the Charleston shootings.
“As a public university, it is vital that we preserve and understand our history and help our students and
the public learn from it in meaningful ways,” Fenves said. “Jefferson Davis had few ties to Texas but played a unique role in the history of the American South that is best explained and understood through an educational exhibit. The Briscoe Center has the expertise to do that.”
But statues of other historical figures connected to the Confederacy — generals Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee, as well as John H. Reagan, a postmaster general — will remain on the Main Mall.
Regarding Lee, Fenves said, his legacy to the nation and to Texas was complex and should not be reduced to his role in the Civil War. Regarding Johnston and Reagan, the UT president said he decided to keep the statues in place because of their deep ties to Texas.
In addition, UT said, a statue of President Woodrow Wilson that stands opposite the Davis statue will be relocated to an exterior location on campus that has not yet been determined in order to maintain symmetry in the Main Mall space.