Fenves said he had considered the historical and cultural significance of four Confederate statues on campus — depicting Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, John Reagan and former Texas governor James Stephen Hogg — but concluded they were “severely compromised by what they symbolize.”
“Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans,” Fenves said in a statement. “That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry.”
And so, under heavy security and surrounded by a few dozen supporters and protesters, crews began taking down the statues from the Main Mall of the campus after midnight Sunday, the Associated Press reported. Tensions were high, and police diffused at least one argument.
“I hate the erasure of history and my people’s history … people of European descent who built this country,” Mark Peterson, 22, who identified himself as a University of Houston student, told the Associated Press. “It burns me to my core.”
Mike Lowe, 37, who has advocated for Confederate statues in San Antonio to be taken down, disagreed.
“They have no other reasons than ‘you are erasing our history.’ Their reasoning is flawed,” Lowe said, according to the Associated Press. “These monuments represent white supremacy, and black lives haven’t mattered in this county the same as a white man’s matters.”
The statues of Lee, Johnston and Reagan will be reinstalled at UT’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, while the one of Hogg may be relocated to another campus site, Fenves said. Classes for the fall semester begin Aug. 30.
In 2015, the university also took down a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and moved it to the Briscoe Center, two months after the fatal shooting of nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C. As The Washington Post’s Nick Anderson reported then, the statue had already been controversial, but the Charleston massacre provided a breaking point that led to its removal.
After the Charleston shooting, Fenves formed a task force to consider the fate of the campus’s Confederate statues. Fenves said Sunday he had consulted that same 2015 task force report when making a decision regarding the statues of Lee, Johnston, Reagan and Hogg.
“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,” Fenves said, using a nickname for the Austin campus. “We do not choose our history, but we choose what we honor and celebrate on our campus.”
Since Charlottesville, Confederate statues have become increasingly polarizing flash points between the left and the right, as well as the targets of graffiti and defacement. Some public leaders and university officials across the country have ramped up efforts to take such statues down — in a few cases removing them in the hopes of avoiding violent protests.
On Saturday, Duke University announced it would remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in front of the Duke chapel after the statue had been damaged by vandals.
Last week, four Confederate monuments in Baltimore were removed in the middle of the night. Similarly, the statue of Supreme Court justice and segregationist Roger B. Taney was taken down from the Maryland State House grounds after midnight on Friday, representing a change of heart by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
“We can’t wipe out all of our history, nor should we try to,” Hogan said then. “But when it reaches the point where some of these symbols, whether they have historical significance or not, when they become a focal point for racism and violence, then it’s time to do something about it.”
Even Six Flags Over Texas, a Dallas-area theme park, said last week it will no longer fly Confederate flags on its grounds, reversing an earlier decision.
“At Six Flags Over Texas we strive every single day to make people happy and to create a fun, thrilling and safe family friendly experience for our guests,” park spokeswoman Sharon Parker said in an email. “We always choose to focus on celebrating the things that unite us versus those that divide us. As such, we have changed the flag displays in our park to feature American flags.”
The flag for the Confederate States of America had been displayed at the park’s toll entrance and in the “Star Mall,” one of 10 themed areas within the park. The amusement park itself is named after the six flags that have flown over Texas over the course of history: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States and the Confederacy.