In the spring of 1912, the Titanic sank. Less tragically, Fenway Park opened, the Girl Guides (later the Girl Scouts) were founded, and the South Pole was discovered.
On June 3 that year, in DeLeon Plaza, folks gathered to dedicate a monument to a time then almost five decades gone, when – apparently – society was more enlightened. The Confederate States of America ceased to be a reality when its capital at Richmond was overrun in 1865, but its ghosts lived on, speaking to the group there assembled in words formed in metal and bolted to rock:
“To the soldiers of the Confederate States of America. On civilization’s height, immutable they stand.”
Most charitably, you can read these words to refer only to actual uniformed troops of the CSA, but you can as easily infer a knowing wink toward all who then remained nostalgic – and thus “soldiers” in a sense – for its lost cause. The monument doesn’t pretend to commemorate lives lost, but recalls fondly a way of life long past, and elevates a society in which whites were in charge and Blacks did what they were told. Civilization’s height, indeed.
If you’re inclined to be charitable in your interpretation, pause to consider then-contemporary public policy, as voiced by the legislature. In 1907, Texas amended its then already nearly 20-year-old law requiring separate railcar facilities for Black citizens to include streetcars. Two years later, it passed another law requiring separate facilities at depots. In 1914, it prohibited Black porters from sleeping in berths in sleeping cars and using bedding intended for white passengers. In 1915, the legislature made the penalty for racial intermarriage punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary for two to five years. In 1919, it decreed that Blacks were to use separate branches of county – free libraries. And in the 10th year after Victoria’s monument was dedicated, the legislature passed a law stating that “…in no event shall a Negro be eligible to participate in a Democratic party primary election held in the State of Texas.” Similar Jim Crow laws continued to be enacted well into the 1950s.
To say removing the monument in DeLeon Plaza is “erasing” history is like saying the Titanic was “erased” by the Atlantic iceberg that gashed its hull. History isn’t a statue, or a plaque, or a great ocean liner. History is what happened and why. If the statue is removed from DeLeon Plaza, then it will still have existed, its place there will have been recorded, and it will have stood for what it stood for – in my opinion, for much longer than it should have in a civilization that in fact did progress beyond reliance on human bondage.
Whether now, in light of the renewed efforts of many to bridge racial gaps that stubbornly remain, we choose to remove it or let it be, our reasons will one day be our own history. As inheritors of the society that put it up, if we don’t take it down, will we at least try somehow to acknowledge that the age it was erected to glorify was marked by a terrible malignancy whose effects still torment us? Can we summon the empathy to stand in the shoes of our brothers and sisters of color and see just how insufficient an answer it is to insist that a very public monument to a time when our ancestors regarded theirs as livestock – “civilization’s height,” in other words – is something they should just “get over?”
History can’t be erased, but it can be illuminated. Recent events have once again shined a light on DeLeon Plaza’s stalwart soldier. In the past, we’ve been too timid to see what the light revealed. This time, let’s look harder. Let’s weigh the importance of healing the racial divisions that continue to plague us against the imagined sanctity of a bronze statue put up as a monument to better days for only some of us. Let’s have the courage to act in a way that, when our own history is written, we – and those who come after us – can be proud of.