The following statement was released from Dr. Kristin Henze on behalf of Dr. Jeffrey Littlejohn, Dr. Zachary Doleshal, Dr. Bernadette Pruitt, Dr. Aaron Hyams and Dr. Zachary Montz of the Sam Houston State University Department of History.
Over the past three weeks, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks have sparked national protests denouncing state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism. Alongside the demands for racial justice and structural change, protesters have targeted public monuments honoring the Confederacy for destruction and removal. In the wake of these events, longstanding debates about the function and value of these emblems have reignited in communities across the South.
As professional historians, we recognize that our nation’s history is complex and that different groups of Americans hold competing accounts or interpretations of that history. We also have an obligation to confront the falsehoods embedded in those narratives that distort the past. Monuments do not exist in a vacuum. They amplify narratives and play key roles in shaping the present. It is the social function of a monument – how and why society remembers with an object – that gives it its meaning. The monument in Huntsville, one of over two hundred such monuments, memorials, and public spaces honoring the Confederacy in Texas, serves as an instrument in perpetuating a false narrative called the “Lost Cause.”
Embraced by most white southerners after the Civil War, the “Lost Cause’ promoted a fabricated version of history that skewed the true origins of the war and justified the preservation of white supremacy. Central to this counterfeit narrative were claims that the federal government’s infringement on state’s rights, rather than the desire of white southerners to protect and preserve the institution of slavery, ignited the war, that secession was constitutional, that enslaved men and women benefited from their bondage, and that the sacrifice of Confederate officers and soldiers conferred upon the Confederacy itself a nobility of purpose. Despite mountains of historical evidence that disproves these claims, organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) spearheaded campaigns to erect monuments to this phony history throughout the twentieth century. By presenting a picture of the war as one of northern aggression and the rise of vigilante justice and the oppression of Black southerners as fundamental to the restoration of the South, the “Lost Cause” forged bonds of identity around anti-Blackness and justified racial discrimination and violence.
It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with this history, then, that the two periods in which most Confederate monuments were dedicated was during the rise of the Southern Jim Crow system and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan from 1900 through the 1920s and the period encompassing the modern civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The latter included the construction of the monument in Huntsville, erected in 1956 on the Courthouse grounds by the UDC in response to the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision two years prior that overturned the doctrine sanctioning racial segregation in public education.
That the Huntsville Confederate memorial was placed in front of the courthouse at a time when the law of white supremacy was being challenged should remind us of a different history: that of Black Texans and others who have long fought for the principles of racial justice and equality. Segregation in Walker County’s courts, schools, and businesses did not end by simple legal decree; it was the result of concerted protest by the county’s citizens. But while this activism happened at times right in front of the Walker County courthouse, the continued existence of the Confederate memorial serves to endorse one history - the myth of the “Lost Cause” - while concealing the other.
Time and again, calls for the removal of the monument in Huntsville have led to accusations of erasing history. Rest assured, no one will forget the Civil War if monuments to the Confederate cause are removed. In fact, we believe that the opposite is true. Removal of the monument allows us to look past the ahistorical, fabricated narrative it propagates and opens our past to inquiry. Only by acknowledging and grappling with our past can racism be thoroughly addressed in the present day.
Today we call on Huntsville’s civic leaders to remove the statue from the courthouse grounds.
A building dedicated to the principle of equal justice should not have a monument in front dedicated to the exact opposite ideal.
We also believe that Huntsville should officially recognize that a long history of white supremacy has harmed Black community members and to dedicate themselves to building new community bonds based on inclusion, equity, and justice.
As professional historians, we vow to accept our responsibilities as collaborating partners in this effort and resolve to help bury the myth of the “Lost Cause” once and for all.