What started Friday as a public State Preservation Board hearing on where to place a controversial Confederate plaque that was recently removed from the Texas Capitol quickly turned into a heated debate over whether the marker should’ve been taken down in the first place.
Two weeks earlier, the board voted unanimously to remove the “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque, which falsely states that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery,” from its location near the Capitol rotunda.
The board did not determine a final location for the plaque Friday but unanimously voted in favor of a motion to temporarily store the plaque in the Capitol collection — which consists of artifacts from the Capitol and state history — and allow a 90-day period for public comment on where the plaque should end up.
Many who testified at the hearing, however, took issue with the fact that the six-member board, chaired by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, voted in favor of removing the plaque — and did so without seeking public testimony on the matter.
“That plaque has been there for 60 years. It’s been there through 11 different governors and 28 state legislatures,” said David Roberts, a Montgomery resident who testified before the committee. “Then the [board] decided to take it upon themselves to determine what the proper history portrays and then to take the plaque down with no public comment or no input.
“People like me have ancestors who fought or died in the Civil War. My family didn’t own any slaves. They weren’t fighting for slavery. For us it’s just about input and having some sort of public discourse.”
Others who testified proposed that the plaque be returned to the United Daughters of the Confederacy after the 90-day period of public discussion.
“Because this plaque was not gifted to the state of Texas, we are asking that the plaque be returned as we are the parent organization of the Children of the Confederacy,” said Martha Hartzog, a longtime Austin resident who spoke on behalf of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Abbott, along with Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans who serve as co-vice chairs on the preservation board under Abbott, did not come to Friday’s meeting. All three sent top staffers to speak on their behalf.
State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, started the campaign against the plaque during the summer of 2017. It recently drew support from prominent Texas Republicans, including Bonnen, former House Speaker Joe Straus and Land Commissioner George P. Bush.
“At the beginning, I don't think a lot of people were paying attention to what the plaque said,” Johnson told The Texas Tribune before Friday’s hearing. “The first step was getting people to actually read the plaque, but then once they started paying attention, they realized the plaque isn’t accurate — not in the slightest.”
“It’s not a coincidence that white supremacist groups often use the symbolism of the Confederacy and rally around Confederate symbols when they’re having demonstrations,” he added. “There’s a reason why those symbols have been appropriated for that movement.”
Contempt for the “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque, which was installed in 1959, garnered national attention. But it's far from the only Confederate symbol in Texas. In fact, it’s one of more than 200 scattered across the state and highlights just the latest example of Texas and its cities grappling with the question of whether these symbols should be removed.
Texas is second in the country for having the most Confederate symbols, behind Virginia, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And the state Capitol isn’t the only place where there’s a debate taking place about taking these markers down and figuring out where they go next. In Dallas, officials still haven’t decided what to do with a Robert E. Lee statue that was removed from a city park more than a year ago.
In San Antonio, the City Council voted 10-1 in September 2017 to remove a Confederate war memorial at Travis Park, but there’s still a heated debate taking place over where the monument should go next.
Some who spoke at Friday’s hearing said the movement to remove these symbols — including the Capitol plaque — amounted to an assault on Texas and its history.
“The monuments are there for us to learn from,” said Brandon Burkhart, the president of This is Texas Freedom Force. “It’s part of our history, no matter how you want to teach your child or teach future generations from it. History isn’t always glorious. It can be ugly and violent at times, but it’s still our history.”
Statues and plaques aren’t the only Confederate symbols across the state that’ve drawn contempt. Schools and roads named after men who served in the Confederacy are also under scrutiny, and heated discussions have taken place over what to do with the markers since a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
The larger debate surrounding the plaque is about “what you do about correcting these perceptions of the present built on perceptions of the past,” said Walter Buenger, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Historians would say you change the perceptions of the past to make them more accurate simply because you want people to understand what actually happened and why it happened,” he said. “These things were not put up to accurately reflect what happened in the Civil War era; they say something about the time period of when they were put up.”
Many at Friday’s hearing, however, feared that the plaque was just the first of many symbols on Capitol grounds that would be removed in the coming months. Even without the small plaque on the wall, the Texas Capitol still displays monuments, cannons and portraits honoring the Confederacy.
“I just believe that taking down that plaque is the beginning of the rest of the monuments and the rest of history being erased from Texas,” state Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, said minutes before Friday’s hearing. “I don't believe that plaque is as inaccurate as everyone claims it is."
Johnson, meanwhile, said he hadn’t been consulted by State Preservation Board members on where the plaque should go next. He said he believes it has educational value, however, and suggested a state university or a museum would be “really appropriate” possible locations.
“For so long it stood in the Capitol and was used to miseducate,” Johnson said. “Wouldn’t it be great if it could spend the next 60 or so years in a place where it could educate Texans about what the Civil War was about — and what this period after the Civil War was about?”
Disclosure: The State Preservation Board and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.