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On Statues, History, and Historians

Workers stand next to a larger truck carrying three statues in front of a large university building.

Workers installing statues of John H. Reagan, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Woodrow Wilson on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, circa 1933. Image from the Coppini-Tauch papers, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

As a cultural geographer, I often teach history to help students understand how the everyday landscapes that frame our lives and give meaning to our daily activities are the products of specific cultural and political projects of the past (and of the present). I’ve also found myself teaching about history itself: about the process by which history and historical knowledge is established and perpetuated.

For the past 10 years, I’ve taken students in my Contemporary Cultural Geography class on an on-campus field trip to observe six statues that were installed on our campus (the University of Texas at Austin [UT]) in the 1920s as part of a commemoration to the Confederacy. The statues were commissioned by early benefactor and UT Regent George Washington Littlefield, who had been a Confederate soldier during the Civil War. Reputed to be the richest ex-Confederate at the turn of the twentieth century, Littlefield made his money in ranching and banking, and spent his later years engaged in a series of projects to embed symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces and historical sites across the South, in an attempt to reshape history and normalize white supremacy.

Littlefield also funded the study of Southern history in UT’s history department. He specifically wanted historians at UT to champion the Lost Cause ideology and establish the “Southern” perspective on the Civil War and Reconstruction: that the war had not been about slavery and that Reconstruction was a form of Northern retribution that went too far. This perspective was used to justify and legitimate the turn-of-the-century political order, rooted in white supremacy and institutionalized in the Democratic Party across the south.

In our current moment, the story of Littlefield’s work to further the political project of white supremacy can help illuminate how the landscapes that we inherit, and which are currently being reshaped by the removal of Confederate statues, were produced.

The Littlefield statues depict Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston (Littlefield’s commanding officer at Shiloh, where Johnston was killed and Littlefield seriously wounded), Confederate Postmaster General and Cabinet Member John H. Reagan, Texas Governor James Hogg (who signed into law the first Jim Crow statutes in the state in 1891), and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

Even though only four of the figures were part of the Confederacy itself, Littlefield talked about the group as a memorial to the Confederacy, by which he meant a celebration of the ascendancy of white supremacy and the consolidation of power by conservative Democrats after the failure of Reconstruction. This is evidenced by the inclusion of Hogg and Wilson, which makes clear the fact that his project was more rooted in a turn-of-the-century political and racial project rather than one strictly “about” the Civil War.

Part of what makes this set of statues so teachable is that UT holds Littlefield’s papers; those papers show how landscape memorials help establish historical “truth.”

A major project of Littlefield’s later life documented in holdings at UT is the memorial to Jefferson Davis in his birthplace, Fairview, Kentucky. Littlefield was Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Jefferson Davis Home Association, the organization responsible for building the memorial, and he made the largest financial contribution to it: over $48,000 (about $750,000 in today’s dollars). He worked closely with Bennett Young, another Confederate Veteran and president of the association.

Letters in UT’s collection between Littlefield and Young show that they struggled to get the project off the ground and, once begun, they struggled to complete it. In the mid-1910s, they ran into several problems: lack of available concrete and labor due to World War I (at one point, they “borrowed” black inmates from a nearby prison to work on the project) and a lack of funds. Despite Littlefield’s generous contribution, they were having trouble raising money to complete the monument. In a letter to Littlefield dated March 13, 1916, Young confessed why they were having such trouble: “because—I may say to you what I would not say outside—that Mr. Davis was never popular in the South and it was difficult to excite and evoke enthusiasm in regard to things which affect him.” This confession is telling, because it shows that Littlefield and Young were not simply building a monument to reflect admiration for Davis across the former Confederacy, but to create such admiration.

By making Davis’s image and name part of the very landscape, Littlefield and Young were (re)writing history by making Davis seem more popular than he was. They were also trying to control the future: our present. Thus, a little more than 100 years later white supremacist David Duke could Tweet, “God bless the brave, beautiful & courageous men/women defending our beloved Jefferson Davis monument tonight – America’s finest, thank you!” White supremacists and defenders of the Confederacy would likely tell you that there are so many statues and commemorations of Jefferson Davis because Davis was a great man, much beloved and revered by Southerners. Yet, this view obscures the work of rich and powerful men like Littlefield who made such a view “history.”

While controversies over Confederate statues have mostly focused on major figures such as Davis and Robert E. Lee, the story of another of Littlefield’s statues, that of John H. Reagan, further reveals how landscape memorialization is bound up with the construction of history—and the role historians played in that process.

A statue of John H. Reagan.

John H. Reagan by Pompeo Coppini – University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, USA. Created circa 1923. Source: Daderot via Wikimedia.

Today, John H. Reagan is obscure, but at the turn of the twentieth century, he was a major figure in Texas politics, serving as a U.S. Congressman before the Civil War and Senator afterwards, as well as playing a leading role in crafting the 1876 Texas Constitution and serving as the first Railroad Commissioner, a position of great power over land and mineral rights across the state. Reagan was a leader of the conservative Democratic movement that regained power after reconstruction and consolidated Jim Crow rule across the South. He also served as Postmaster General of the Confederacy.

Following the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015 and again after the clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, debate erupted over the Littlefield statues. In both cases, arguments were made that while figures such as Davis and Lee might be objectionable, John Reagan was worthy of commemoration because of his “decades-long service to Texas” (Austin American-Statesman editorial, “In S.C., unthinkable becomes fact”, July 11, 2015). The general logic seemed to imply something along the following lines: Reagan’s position as Postmaster General of the Confederacy put him in charge of delivering mail, hardly something that should be held against him; furthermore, he seems to have “made good” after the war by serving in Congress, showing that he was reformed.

A 2015 report commissioned by UT President Greg Fenves made this argument for keeping the Reagan statue: “Unlike the other Confederate leaders depicted in the statuary, John Reagan went on to serve Texas in the United States Congress for many years following the end of the Civil War; he also ‘urged his fellow Texans to cooperate with the federal government, renounce secession, and allow freed slaves to vote.’” The strange thing about this view of Reagan-as-reformer is that it is completely inaccurate.

As Postmaster General, Reagan was part of Jefferson Davis’ cabinet and therefore part of the central decision-making apparatus of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Furthermore, as the longest surviving member of the Confederate Cabinet, Reagan became a spokesperson for promulgating the myth of the Lost Cause, for example, speaking at a meeting of the United Confederate Veterans at their “R. E. Lee Camp” in Fort Worth on April 19, 1903, defending secession (http://www.confederatecolonel.com/resources/j-reagan-address/). Far from “renouncing” secession, he continued to justify it 40 years later.

What he advocated after the Civil War was a pragmatic approach to appeasing Union demands to minimize the social impact of emancipation in Texas. He first outlined this position in a letter written while he was still imprisoned in Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor, at the end of the war. As he explained in his 1906 memoir, “I was eager to see the war end at this point, foreseeing the lamentable possibilities behind the demand which was being made in the North . . .  for the disfranchisement of the whites with a counter elevation of the slaves to all the dignities of citizenship. . . .  to save us from these evils which seemed to me dismally foreboding”(page 225). Therefore, he wrote the letter “to save us from universal negro suffrage” (227).

Rather than advocating voting rights for blacks, Reagan was trying to minimize them. In his letter, he explains how this can be accomplished: “by fixing an intellectual and moral, and, if thought advisable, a property test, for the admission of all persons to the exercise of the elective franchise, without reference to race or color.” By doing so, “no person now entitled to the privilege of voting should be deprived of it by any new test. I would recognize in this the difference between taking away a right heretofore enjoyed, and the conferring of a right not heretofore exercised.” (Fort Warren letter, August 11, 1865; reproduced in Memoirs, page 291). Reagan’s approach was exactly the one that was put in place across the South following the reconstruction period, when conservative, white Democrats returned to power, and African Americans were systematically disenfranchised. And it was exactly this route that led to the need for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Far from being a reformed Confederate, Reagan helped build key tenets of post-reconstruction white supremacy in Texas. Where, then, did the myth of Reagan-as-reformer come from?

Contemporary information on Reagan can be traced to one of two sources: the single biography of him by historian Ben Procter, Not Without Honor (1962), and the entry in The Handbook of Texas Online, written by Procter and published by the Texas State Historical Association, of which Procter is a past president (https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fre02). Procter’s celebratory book ends by claiming that Reagan was “a man . . . who by sheer determination and integrity of character became one of the outstanding men of his time. Throughout his life he had fought the good fight; he had kept faith with his people; he had remained true to his convictions. To Texas and the South this made him a statesman, yea, even a prophet. And, even in his own country, in death as in life, he was not without honor.”[1]

What makes this connection to Procter so noteworthy is the way in which his career and views were shaped by the work of Littlefield. Procter was an undergraduate at UT, in the history department that Littlefield helped found and shape, through his endowment, into a center for the promotion of the Lost Cause ideology. Procter was a product of this environment. Furthermore, he was a product of the landscape that Littlefield helped create on campus at UT, as he explains in the Acknowledgements to his book:

“One day during the fall of 1957 Professor Frederick Merk of Harvard asked me what I knew about John H. Reagan of Texas. To my embarrassment, being a Texan, I only remembered that he was one of Texas’ ‘Greats,’ that there were numerous Texas schools named in his honor, and that a huge statue of him was on the University of Texas campus. But with just such a question this work began.”

In other words, Procter, schooled to view the world through the perspective of the Lost Cause, wrote the biography of Reagan to fit the image of him that Littlefield had installed in the landscape on campus. Procter’s view then becomes the accepted historical interpretation of Reagan’s legacy. In this circle of influence, we can see the way that landscape memorialization shapes the making of history, which in turn helps shape subsequent historical interpretations of the landscape, justifying the veneration of Confederates.

Tracing this cycle helps students see how landscapes come to function as important parts of political projects and thus helps students see that landscape is not an inert inheritance of “heritage” but an ongoing process of negotiation and reinterpretation of the past.

In fact, the Littlefield statues at UT have recently been reinterpreted: after Charleston, the statues of Davis and Wilson were removed,[2] and after Charlottesville, the remaining four statues were also taken down. The campus landscape is actively being renegotiated in light of our current historical moment.

Rich Heyman teaches cultural geography and urban studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

For more Process pieces concerning monuments, read about building names at Oregon State University, memorials commemorating Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and statues of Christopher Columbus.

[1] In 1965, the year of the Voting Rights Act, Austin opened a new high school that would serve the predominantly black and Hispanic population of its east side, John H. Reagan High School, with the motto “Not Without Honor.” On February 26, 2018, The Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees voted to change the name of Reagan High and three other schools in the district named for Confederates. They are currently in the process of finding new names for the schools.

[2] The Davis statue has been moved to UT’s Briscoe Center for American History, where it is on display. See https://www.tribtalk.org/2017/06/22/missing-a-chance-to-address-the-role-of-racism-in-uts-history/.

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