In the wake of national controversy surrounding Confederate flags and symbols – whether federal, state, and local governments should keep them on display in public – San Antonio officials at the city and county levels are calling for their removal.
Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2) sent a letter to Mayor Ivy Taylor on Wednesday, requesting that a task force be formed to “review and inventory all Confederate monuments and/or flags that are currently placed in public places.” The main item in question is the 1899 monument in Travis Park that honors Confederate soldiers killed in battle.
In an emailed statement, Mayor Taylor said City Manager Sheryl Sculley “has already directed staff to identify any monuments connected with Confederate history or symbolism and I will be receiving that report shortly, After which time the appropriate staff or Council committee can consider opportunities for expanding interpretation at these sites.”
Mayor Taylor stood firm on her stance that removing Confederate symbols would not solve underlying causes of racism in the U.S. but acknowledged that the flag is offensive when used as a symbol by the government.
“Selectively erasing pieces of our past may make it more comfortable for us today but it also makes it easier for many to ignore the historic struggles of Blacks in this country, a struggle for equality that continues today,” she wrote. “It is offensive to use the rebel battle flag as a symbol of a city or state but it is also offensive to pretend that Texas was never a slave state or that racism has played no role in our history for the past 150 years. Instead, we need to do a better job of teaching history and a better job of discussing and understanding our complicated and multi-faceted past.”
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has also called for the removal of two plaques on County property; a 1936 Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway marker at the Bexar County Courthouse and a marker across Nueva Street from the courthouse that includes Confederate flags and a statement honoring Robert E. Lee. The Commissioner’s Court will discuss the plaques during its July 21 meeting.
“We’ve been thinking about this for awhile,” Judge Wolff said, who added that there will also be discussion about what could replace the Confederate plaques. “We want a symbol of what we all stand for … where we come together, not what divides us.”
Judge Wolff said he would be hesitant to support the removal of all monuments or the renaming of Robert E Lee High School, named for the Confederate General. Former Mayor Julián Castro, now the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, recently called out local leadership to find “other, more appropriated individuals to honor, and spotlight as role models.”
There is also a Southside street in San Antonio that bears the general’s name.
“It’s really about what the flag specifically has become a symbol of,” Wolff said. “Of course (we need) history – that’s why we have schools. It’s another thing to flaunt a symbol that stood for slavery.”
The Confederate flag on South Carolina State Capitol grounds will come down on Friday after a bill was approved by the state legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley on Thursday afternoon. The bill was inspired by the racially motivated killings last month of nine innocent and unarmed African-Americans attending prayer services in South Carolina. The deaths sparked a national discussion on race relations that became focused on Confederate symbolism after photos emerged of the shooter, Dylann Roof, posing with the flag.
“I do not want to white-wash (the Confederacy) – I don’t want to erase history by any means,” Warrick said Thursday. “But you don’t see Nazi flags flying around in Germany, they’re in museums.”
A spokesperson for the Office of Historic Preservation confirmed that the department does not have a list of Confederate artifacts or memorials on City property. Warrick was unaware of others beyond the statue in Travis Park, which was funded by the Barnard E. Bee chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy.
“It should at least be up for discussion,” he added, noting that the monument on display at Travis Park would probably be welcomed by a museum dedicated to Civil War history.
“I do not believe the vast majority of residents who support Confederate flags or monuments have hate in their hearts. The fact that some of these symbols are utilized by hate groups to harass and intimidate should be enough to give us pause,” Warrick stated in his letter to Mayor Taylor. He concluded with, “I hope as San Antonio’s leadership, we will move to discuss this topic swiftly, so that our City can continue to achieve its mission as a City on the rise for the new face of America.”
Click here to download Warrick’s letter.
Earlier this week, state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) sent a similar letter asking Gov. Greg Abbott to convene a task force to discuss Confederacy memorials on the Capitol grounds in Austin.
While private citizens have the right to free speech, the question has become whether government entities should display what some say is an homage to 150 years of racism that has persisted since the American Civil War and Reconstruction.
Others, however, say Confederate symbols are an homage to U.S. history – those that fought for the South were Americans, too.
“We’ve contacted the mayor’s office and asked that she stand by her earlier statement,” said Russ Lane, commander of the local chapter, Alamo City Guards Camp, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “Which will take a great amount of political courage on her part … given the national hysteria.”
Lane said there is no need for a task force – that there is no need to remove Confederate symbols from public property – but if it’s created, the Sons of Confederate Veterans should be on it. And if the memorials are to be removed, they should be given to the Alamo City Guards Camp. Download his letter to Judge Wolff here.
“Let’s say we remove the Confederate monument in Travis Park … all that does is cost the City money and will do absolutely nothing for the citizens of San Antonio but it would cause discord between us (the Sons) and the City,” he said, adding that the monuments provide educational opportunities by inspiring the viewer to seek out more information. “It’s un-American when you get right down to it.”
Lane also rejects the notion that the Confederate battle flag “stands for slavery,” or for the violent murders in South Carolina. He argues that the historical use of the flag was simply for battle communications.
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“All over one idiot (Dylann Roof) who did a very outrageous criminal act and because there happen to be a photo of him holding the flag,” he said. “Next month, somebody might take a stand against Vietnam Veterans.”
The University of Texas at Austin is also embroiled in a debate of its own over whether to remove Confederate monuments after three statues were vandalized. An online petition calling for the removal of the most controversial, that of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, has collected more than 3,671 supporters as of Thursday afternoon.
*Featured/top image: The Vance House marker at the former Federal Reserve Bank building, now owned by Bexar County. Photo by Scott Ball.