Students at Texas university look to rid campus of Jefferson Davis memorial

Student leaders at a Texas university are looking to remove a statue memorializing Confederate president Jefferson Davis from its campus.

"We thought, there are those old ties to slavery and some would find it offensive," said senior Jamie Nalley, who joined an overwhelming majority of the Student Government at the University of Texas at Austin in adopting a resolution in March supporting his ouster.

As students take aim at Davis, the number of sites in Texas on public and private land that honor the Confederacy is growing, despite the opposition from the NAACP and other groups. Supports say they have a right to support Confederate veterans because of their role in Texas history, while opponents argue that memorials are too often insensitive or antagonistic, while having the backing of public institutions like UT.

The Texas Historical Commission has recognized more than 1,000 Confederate memorial sites from far South Texas to the upper reaches of the Panhandle. The Sons of Confederate Veterans are planning more monuments, including a 10-foot obelisk a few miles from the Davis statue to honor about 450 Confederate soldiers buried at the city-owned Oakwood Cemetery.

"I don't think we're trying to put up stuff just to put up stuff," said Marshall Davis, spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Texas. "We don't want to impede anyone else from honoring their heroes. We would like to honor our heroes with the same consideration, tolerance and diversity."

Besides the obelisk, other projects include a Confederate memorial along Interstate 10 in the city of Orange will feature 32 waving flags representing Texas regiments of the Confederate army, along with 13 columns for each Confederate state. That projected started after a Confederate Veterans Memorial Plaza was unveiled two years ago in downtown Palestine, near what the NAACP claims was the site of a “hanging tree.”

Student leaders and the NAAP say the Jefferson Davis statue has not place on the UT campus since his link to Texas is primarily based on the state’s ties to the Confederacy.

“I think it's offensive that you exalt Jefferson Davis but you don't exalt Abraham Lincoln," said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP.

The Student Government resolution has been forwarded to campus administrators but no action has been taken, according to a university spokesman.

Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center for American History at UT, said the statue and many other memorials across the South in the early 1900s were commissioned by aging Civil War veterans who were outspoken that it was states’ rights and not slavery that motivated their actions.

Late in his life, George Washington Littlefield — a Confederate officer, UT regent and prominent benefactor to the school — had commissioned Italian artist Pompeo Coppini to build a fountain and statues to Littlefield's heroes, Carleton said. The artist sought to include a statue of President Woodrow Wilson and arrange a fountain configuration that represented the country moving beyond its fractured past and unifying behind the fight against Germany and its allies in World War I.

But Littlefield later died, money dried up and Coppini's vision was never fully realized, Carleton said. Instead, statues of Davis, President George Washington, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan and others were scattered about the campus without context.

Carleton said aside from the symbolism of the statues, they're works of art and should be preserved. He suggests adding explanatory plaques that describe the original intention.

"That's not going to placate everyone, and I understand that, but I think it's a lot better in explaining them to people rather than leaving it just as it is," he said.

The Texas Historical Commission has records of the more than 1,000 sites in the state that memorialize the Confederacy — from a Confederate cemetery in San Antonio and marker honoring Gen. Lawrence "Sul" Ross at Sul Ross State University in Alpine to a building in Marshall that housed the Civil War State Government of Missouri in exile.

The effort to remove the Davis statue is ill-conceived, said Marshall Davis.

"The fact that the state of Texas joined the Confederate States of America is history. It happened," he said. "It's not a matter of opinion."

The Associated Press contributed to this report