Creating a New Post-Civil War Narrative in Dallas

On Friday, 16 May 2017, New Orleans dismantled the last of its confederate Civil War monuments, a statue of General Robert E. Lee.  In place of the four monuments, Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposes installing fountains and U.S. flags.  A Lyft driver my sister and I encountered in the Big Easy in July suggested the former Lee site be made into a purple, green, and gold King (Mardi Gras) Cake with a baby on top.  No one, he said, could be upset about that since everyone loves Mardi Gras.

New Orleans has resolved its “public nuisance” problem — that is what the city council called the four statues when they determined to remove them.  Now it is time that Dallas resolved its own confederate monument problem. Fortunately, Dallas Mayor Rawlings has seen fit to address it.

In the wake the murders of nine of its African-American citizens in 2015, South Carolina finally removed the confederate battle flag from its state capitol.  Shortly thereafter in a June 2015 Dallas Morning News article reporter Elise Schmelzer documented some of the confederate markers and symbols that abound in Dallas including Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee Elementary Schools.  Fortunately, in 1999, the school named for Jefferson Davis was born anew as Barbara Jordan Elementary, named for the African-American congresswoman from Texas.

The confederate symbol I am most familiar with is the larger-than-life-size statue of Robert E. Lee that sits in Oak Lawn’s Lee Park.  I used to attend Dallas Symphony Orchestra concerts there when I lived nearby. The park was simply and appropriately Oak Lawn Park until 1936 when, during the Texas Centennial, U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the Robert E. Lee statue.  Afterward, the park was renamed for Lee.

What in the world could Roosevelt have been thinking dedicating a statue to a confederate traitor?  Because, after all, that is what Generals Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Albert Sidney Johnston, and confederate president Jefferson Davis were.  I mention the other generals and Jefferson Davis here for they adorn the confederate monument thought to be Dallas’s oldest outdoor statue.  Erected in 1897, in addition to the four most infamous traitors to the Civil War Union is a confederate soldier atop a 60-foot high pedestal around which the life-size likenesses of Lee, Jackson, Johnston, and Davis stand.  This statue sits in Pioneer Park Cemetery in downtown Dallas contiguous to our Dallas Convention Center.

Just the other day courtesy of Dallas Morning News columnist James Ragland, I learned of a confederate cemetery that sits in a predominantly African-American and Latino South Dallas community barely five minutes from downtown. What, if anything, should be done about it is another issue, something I will have to ponder.

According to Edward Sebesta, a Dallas author who is against confederate symbols, they “proclaim the white identity of Dallas.”  At the same time, they proclaim the not so hidden white supremacist narrative of the city. As Sebesta points out, such monuments and symbols are messages from those who erected them: “They are markers of territory and identity.”  And the not so distant past.

There are, it must be said, defenders of these symbols and the men they glorify. But traitors who lose their rebellions – just like toppled dictators – shouldn’t be celebrated with statues and public memorials erected in their honor.  It is unlikely that there are such memorials to Hitler in present-day Germany, or statues of Mussolini in Italy. They lost their causes.  They belong in history books and museums, but not in public places that exemplify the city’s and country’s core values and beliefs and for which the public pays the upkeep.

The fate of traitors is consignment to the dustbins of history.  Plainly and simply: the confederates lost. And but for Abraham Lincoln’s determination to forgive the traitorous rebels and desire to reunite the country, the confederate president and his minions likely would have been imprisoned or even executed for treason. No celebratory monuments should be maintained for them. It is time for a new, twenty-first century, post-Civil War narrative to be established in Dallas.

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