University takes down statues of Davis, Wilson

A statue of Jefferson Davis is moved from its location in front of the school's main tower on the University of Texas campus Sunday.
A statue of Jefferson Davis is moved from its location in front of the school's main tower on the University of Texas campus Sunday. Associated Press

Statues of Jefferson Davis and Woodrow Wilson were removed Sunday from the limestone pedestals at the University of Texas on which they have stood for 82 years.

“This is an iconic moment. It really shows the power of student leadership,” said Gregory Vincent, UT’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, referring to a Student Government resolution that called for removing the statue of Davis, president of the Confederate States, from its prominent setting on the university’s Main Mall.

The Davis statue will be installed in 18 months or so in UT’s Briscoe Center for American History after the center is renovated, while Wilson’s will be placed at a yet-to-be-decided outdoor location on campus, according to university officials.

UT announced that it would remove the statues from their limestone pedestals on the Main, or South, Mall after the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans failed to win a court injunction to block the plan.

Kirk Lyons, the Confederate group’s lawyer, said he would press on with a legal fight to return “Brother Jeff” and “Brother Woodrow,” as he calls them, to the mall. He said UT’s action amounts to “ISIS-style cleansing of history,” a reference to the Islamic State group’s destruction of statues and other cultural artifacts in the Mideast.

When UT President Gregory L. Fenves announced his decision earlier this month to move the statues, he said it was no longer in the university’s best interest to memorialize the Confederate leader on the Main Mall. Because of the Confederacy’s effort to preserve slavery, it had been vandalized numerous times over the years, most recently in June when the words “black lives matter” were painted on its base.

Although opposition to the Davis statue surfaced even before it was installed in 1933, the tipping point came this summer with a confluence of events: the Student Government resolution, recommendations from an advisory panel and reduced national tolerance for Confederate symbols after the nine black churchgoers were shot to death in South Carolina. The issue had special resonance at UT, which didn’t admit blacks until it was forced to do so in 1950 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

When he announced his plan for the statues this month, Fenves said the Wilson statue, which stood opposite the Davis statue, would be moved to maintain symmetry on the mall. Historians note that Wilson screened “The Birth of a Nation,” which portrayed black people as villains and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, at the White House, and that he segregated federal offices, restrooms and cafeterias.