On August 13, President Gregory Fenves announced his decision to relocate the statue of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, from the UT Main Mall to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. Additionally, Fenves announced he will relocate the statue of Woodrow Wilson, which sits adjacent to the Davis statue, for the sake of “symmetry.” If Fenves is to show his dedication to equality and diversity to the black student population, he must make plans to erect a new statue in Davis’s place — not only of someone who is a crucial part of Texan and University history, but is black as well.
The demonstrations against the statue’s presence on campus, which include vandalism of the statue, public forums discussing its future and the appointment of a University task force to deliberate possible solutions, were not the first of their kind. Black students have been expressing their grievances against the multiple confederate monuments across campus since at least the ’60s. The charges against the statues cited they create a hostile environment, represent the legacy of racism rather than the legacy of black resistance and provide black students with a constant reminder of the hateful history of Texas and the Confederacy.
Fenves’ decision is a compromise at best. While the remaining Confederate monuments do represent aspects of Texan history, they also represent white supremacy’s role in institutionalized oppression, past and present. There is only one statue on campus dedicated to a black Texan, although there have been countless contributions to the state by black individuals, many of whom have been underappreciated. One of the most notable, courageous and relevant individuals, not only to Texas and UT, but public education across the nation, is Heman Marion Sweatt — the first black student at UT.
Sweatt endured a grueling and emotionally tolling legal battle with the University after being denied admission solely due to his blackness. His victory paved the way for reform of the racist educational system plaguing the country, although it is often overshadowed by the significantly more discussed Brown v. Board of Education, which took place four years later. Sweatt’s significance to the University is undeniable, but his legacy is not prioritized. There is a building named after the UT President that originally denied Sweatt’s admission because he was black. There is little to no established recognition devoted to Sweatt. Fenves has the power and ability to highlight Sweatt’s contributions to the state and the nation. If he is concerned about “symmetry,” erecting a statue of Sweatt is a viable solution that can be a small step to further establishing trust between the black UT community and the administration.
Editor’s Note: A follow-up column containing further research into this issue will be published next week.