The toppling of a Travis Park statue glorifying the Confederate soldier and the decision to rename Robert E. Lee High School, commander of the South’s military rebellion, at long last offer a fuller telling of this dark, violent chapter of American history and its enduring aftermath.
Last week’s events do not represent a fitting end to the persistent distortion of history as told in San Antonio’s public spaces and places. These acts of reconciliation represent only a beginning. More work remains to be done in San Antonio, across Texas, and the South.
I honor our elected officials – Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Councilmen Roberto Treviño (D1) and William “Cruz” Shaw (D2) – and their colleagues who voted with them on this contentious issue that for so many decades has been met with ignorance and denial. Those who preceded them in public office, even those elected leaders of color, never summoned the same fortitude.
More than 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the four-year bloody insurrection started by seven Southern secessionist states with the attack at Fort Sumter, S.C. in 1861. The casualties since then, of course, are incalculable. Since the war ended in 1865, Texas and the South have fought bitterly to deny equal rights to African-Americans, the generations descended from those kidnapped, brutalized, and brought here in chains as slaves.
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To this day throughout the South in particular, but anywhere in the United States on any given day, black people are treated as second-class citizens in a country dedicated to the proposition that “all men (and women) are created equal.”
It’s a history that has been denied and repressed in Texas and other Southern states for 150 years. It’s been denied in our textbooks, denied since Reconstruction by the laws enacted by our elected officials, the behavior of police and sheriff’s deputies and judges and juries, and denied in a society that met defeat with defiance and “separate but equal” treatment of blacks. Separate, yes. Equal, no.
That defiance echoes down from the past into the present. It’s evident in a white nationalist’s mass shooting of black people worshiping in a church in Charleston, S.C., the state where Confederates launched their first attack against the nation. It’s evident in the words of a Georgia policeman who assured a white women at a traffic stop: “Don’t worry, we only shoot black people.”
It is evident in our justice system where it has proven all but impossible to hold accountable police officers for shooting and killing unarmed black men. It’s a standoff rooted in the the respective roles of oppressor and oppressed.
After the Civil War, blacks were denied the vote throughout the South. They were denied access to public schools, colleges, and universities. They couldn’t come and go through the same doors of our public buildings and businesses used by whites. They couldn’t eat at the same counters, or drink from the same water fountains as white Southerners.
A vocal minority of Southerners today still worship the culture of the Confederacy and carry its flag into their battles. They seem indifferent to the history they celebrate and the social order they yearn to perpetuate. That’s the old South, where black people were left to worship in their own churches, learn in their own small schools, live among themselves in substandard conditions, work for lower wages, and told they can’t vote. Even now, black mothers and fathers have to teach their children how to navigate life in a white man’s world that can turn on them in an instant.
None of this, of course, can be found on the pedestal of a statue or on the front doors of a high school named for a Confederate commander. Very little of it is taught anywhere in Texas or the South except at the university level to students of history. The masses still get the Texas whitewash.
History is not being erased. A false history is being challenged. Angry white supremacists can march on our parks and our plazas with their “open carry” rifles and their hatred, but the majority in this country is not going back. The racist movement is as doomed now as it was in 1865.
Most Americans in this nation of immigrants want a multiracial society true to the values of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. We want peace and prosperity. We want to show good will to our fellow man and woman. We support equal access to education and opportunity. We want it for everyone: blacks, whites, Mexican-Americans, and certainly the newest generation of hard-working immigrants.
There is a way, of course, to keep that Confederate statue standing and allow the service of the Southern soldier to be remembered. We can change the name of Travis Park to Civil War Park. Return the Confederate statue and erect a statue of a Union soldier alongside it. Add a statues of a white plantation owner whipping a slave to a bloody pulp.
Add a statue of Abraham Lincoln with a plaque noting the South’s loss of the Presidency in 1860, an office it had dominated since the country’s founding. Tell the story of how Lincoln won the presidency even with his name absent from the ballot in several Southern states. Note the unsuccessful fight to extend slavery to the Western territories. Display scenes from Reconstruction and how the “American Negro” was treated in daily life down South throughout much of the 20th century.
Let’s take our young children to Civil War Park so they can learn from an early age the real history of this country, not the censored version. A more honest telling of our history allows all of us to move beyond the past without forgetting it, to correct the mistakes of the present, and to build a better future.
No one is denigrating your Southern ancestors for wearing the Confederate uniform and serving. But do not ask us to worship them as heroes. No one is erasing history in San Antonio. History is finally being given its day.