The University of Texas is debating what to do about statues that honor Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. UT President William Powers Jr. is now considering various options, including the rearranging of the statues on campus, providing information to visitors on the history of the statues, and finally the removal of the statues to the school’s museum.
“The whole range of options is on the table,” Powers said. “A lot of students, and especially minority students, have raised concerns. And those are understandable and legitimate concerns. On the other hand, the statues have been here for a long time, and that’s something we have to take into account as well.”
In his excellent study of the history of the Confederate battle flag John Coski argues that the best place for its display is in a museum where it can be properly interpreted. I tend to agree with John, but I’ve never believed that his suggestion would be taken seriously by those who see the flag not as a historical object, but as a cultural symbol or as a means to identify with a certain heritage. My guess is that those who see the flag as a vibrant and meaningful way to identify with a certain past will draw similar conclusions in reference to the UT statues. The removal of the statues from the grounds to a museum sends the message that their preferred interpretation of the past is no longer valid or relevant. The defensiveness that accompanies this typically brings out the rants about liberals and political correctness rather than a more serious consideration of how public objects are now being interpreted by parties that traditionally have had little or no say in how the past is remembered.
The photograph at the top is our statue of Robert E. Lee here in Charlottesville. It’s a nice little park situated just off the Downtown Mall and across the street from the historical society. A few blocks away stands a statue in honor of Stonewall Jackson (just above). I would hate to see either one moved from their present locations, though I would understand if certain groups felt differently. My attraction is more aesthetic than one that involves some kind of sympathetic identification or appreciation of their symbolism. I tend to interpret memorials to the Civil War as a reflection of the values of those who chose to dedicate them – most of which were dedicated between 1880 and 1920.
A university, however, is different. In this case I think the best place for the statues is in the school’s museum where they can be interpreted properly. There visitors can learn when and under what circumstances the statues were commissioned and dedicated, which fits perfectly into a school’s mission to educate. This one seems to me to be a no-brainer.