The University of Texas at Austin quietly took down three Confederate monuments from its campus in the dark hours of Sunday night and Monday morning—a controversial move that came with little notice, less than two weeks before classes are scheduled to begin.
According to Matthew Watkins of the Texas Tribune, university president Gregory L. Fenves sent an email to the “campus community” at 11 p.m. on Sunday, announcing the plan to remove statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston and Confederate cabinet member John Reagan. A statue of James Stephen Hogg, the 20th governor of Texas, was also removed—not because the university objects to its presence on campus, but because "the entire statuary is one exhibit, so it all goes together," UT-Austin spokesperson J.B. Bird tells Watkins.
Fenves’ decision to take down the statues is the latest in a nation-wide bid to remove public monuments to Confederate heroes. Efforts have ramped up in the wake of white nationalist protests against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, which took place earlier this month. One woman was killed and dozens were injured when the rallies turned violent.
UT-Austin was, in fact, the second educational institution to take down its Confederate monuments over the weekend. On Saturday, as Gina Cherelus reports for Reuters, Duke University removed a statue of Lee from the entrance to a chapel located on its Durham, North Carolina, campus.
In a statement, Fenves says that UT-Austin opted to remove its Confederate monuments because such statues “have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism."
“The historical and cultural significance of the Confederate statues on our campus — and the connections that individuals have with them — are severely compromised by what they symbolize," Fenves adds. "Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans. That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry."
Lee was the preeminent general of the Confederate army during the Civil War. Johnston, who hailed from Kentucky, but spent a significant amount of his adult life in Texas, commanded “all Confederate troops between Texas and the Appalachian Mountains,” according to History.com and was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. Reagan, who also had strong ties to Texas, served as the postmaster general of the Confederacy.
The university’s tributes to these historical figures will be moved to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, which is located on campus. As Jonah Engel Bromwich reports for the New York Times, the monuments will join a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, which was taken down in 2015. That removal, Luqman Adeniyi of the Texas Tribune reported at the time, was prompted by the murder of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, by a self-described white supremacist earlier that summer.
As the Associated Press notes, the university’s decision to take down the Davis statue was a “much more deliberate effort” than the current removals. A special task force was convened to determine the future of Davis’ monument, and ultimately decided that it should come down. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Confederate heritage group, sued the university in an unsuccessful attempt to halt the removal of the statue.
This time around, the UT-Austin acted quickly and quietly in the interest of “public safety,” university spokesman Gary Susswein tells the AP. The publication reports that less than 30 people—some for the removals, others against them—gathered to watch the Confederate monuments being taken down from their place of prominence on campus.