The "Whites Only" drinking fountain sign in a Dallas County building that inspired artist Lauren Woods' A Dallas Drinking Fountain project

History

A Better Solution for Dallas’ Confederate Statues

Dallas' Confederate monuments should not be covered up, but confronted, corrected, and co-opted.

Around 2005, workers renovating the Dallas County Records Building in downtown Dallas removed some tiling on a wall near a drinking fountain and revealed the remnants of an old sign. It read, in faded discolored outlines on the marble wall: “White Only.”

The revelation was an embarrassment and a reminder that it was not long ago that the sign carried the weight of the law, that public buildings in Dallas were segregated, and by extension, the justice distributed within — and rule of law represented by — those public buildings was denied to thousands of Dallas residents simply because of the color of their skin. The discovery of the sign was also an uncomfortable reminder that such signs were once ubiquitous in this city, simple perfunctory instructions inserted everywhere into daily life not only to ensure that people of color did not enjoy the full rights, privileges, and protections of American society, but also to attempt to erase people of color from the white experience of that society.

The letters, faded discolorations on marble, could not be erased. They were scars, indelible and unforgettable. The county responded by placing a historical marker on the wall next to the sign to recognize and explain the history of the Jim Crow south. But one Dallas resident, artist Lauren Woods, had another idea. Woods didn’t believe that a historical marker was enough, that it couldn’t carry the full weight of meaning contained in the fact that the sign had been placed on the wall — and was somehow still on the wall — of a public building in Dallas. In 2013, Woods was commissioned by the county to turn the water fountain into an art installation as simple and direct as the words on the wall.

Today, when someone presses the button to activate the drinking fountain under the old “White Only” sign in the Dallas County Records Building, a video projector turns on and a news clip appears that shows little girls being power-sprayed by fire hoses during a Civil Rights demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama. The art installation is as poetic as it is blunt. It doesn’t soften the blow of the past, it amplifies it. In a single image, Woods makes explicit the abuse, torture, and hatred that is the real subtext of the “White Only” sign and exposes the racism that it truly represents: a moral world that attempted to deny and destroy African-Americans’ very humanity. With that simple gesture, Woods’ artwork completes and corrects the historical record.

The symbols and artifacts of the past — and the nature of the history they convey — has once again risen into the city’s public discourse. Responding to a national trend that has seen cities and towns across the southern United States reconsider the value and meaning of various monuments to the Confederacy and the Confederate heroes of the Civil War, Dallas has been debating whether it should remove its Confederate monuments, of which two most notably stand out: the statue of Robert E. Lee at Lee Park in Oak Lawn, and the massive Confederate memorial that stands outside the Convention Center at the edge of Founders Cemetery.

The debate has been framed around the question of whether the monuments should stay as they are or be removed. (My colleague Glenn Hunter argued yesterday that they should stay.) I believe the binary nature of that debate sells it short. The monuments are very much like the “White Only” sign in the Dallas County Records building — that is, historical artifacts that convey half-written or poorly written histories. They insert a historical reading into an aesthetic sphere, and so the response to the invalidity of that historical reading must also be aesthetic.

It is important to remember, as others have pointed out, that many of the monuments to the Confederacy erected throughout the South were born of a particular time and are the manifestations of a particular kind of cultural nostalgia, an early 20th-century attempt to come to terms with the complicated, contradictory, and conflicted history of the American South and to rescue from it its unique Southern cultural identity. But in reclaiming the valor of the imagined heroes of the past, the monuments reassert the primacy of the moral vision of that past. And regardless of any nuances of biography and history, the moral vision of the Confederate South was one of white supremacy.

It is impossible to separate that historical reality from the memorials erected in honor of that past, and so it is not at all surprising that African-Americans who have grown up in an America still very much shaped by racism and discrimination would understand those statues as nothing less than implicit conveyers of the power of the racist past extending into the present. Furthermore, to deny the validity of this response to the monuments is to participate in the very act of neutering engendered by the monuments’ implicit power — that is, it is to deny or attempt to erase the validity of the African-American experience of America.

But like the “White Only” sign, it is not enough to remove these markers. The monuments should not be covered up, but confronted, and — as Woods managed to achieve with her water fountain project — what is objectionable about these monuments should not be mollified but amplified. Because if we are ever going to come to terms with the reality of racism in America, the history must be confronted in its fullness.

I see two options for achieving this:

The first is to handle the statues exactly as the county handled the “White Only” sign. The city should commission an artist or artists to create a new work of art that could engage with, re-contextualize, and complete the monuments. I won’t venture to guess what this would look like, exactly. I’m not an artist. But I believe that, as with Woods’ and Cynthia Mulcahy’s Negro parks project, which attempted to bring attention to the complicated history of this city’s segregated parks and extend education around their historical research, the monuments offer an opportunity for Dallas to confront that history head on. Artistic approaches to re-contextualizing the monuments’ presence in the city would amplify the weight of their history while simultaneously symbolically reclaiming the public spaces they loom over for all the people of Dallas. Leaving them alone won’t achieve this. They must be co-opted and appropriated. If allowed (and, as a warning, permission was a real obstacle for Woods and Mulcahy with regards to the Negro parks project), good artists can do this, and it is precisely their role in society to do so.

The second option is to remove the monuments and place them in Old City Park, a setting already designated for the preservation and interpretation of the artifacts of Dallas’ past. Perhaps the monuments could better serve the historical import their defenders impart on them if they were not allowed to lord over Dallas’ public spaces, but were instead placed alongside the other artifacts of the society that they represent, like the Freedman Town shotgun shanties that already sit in Old City Park and testify to the abject poverty, abuse, and discrimination that was the flip side to the monuments’ nostalgic glorification of the Old South. But it would not be enough to simply leave the former locations of the monuments vacant. Rather, new monuments, historical markers, or artworks should be erected at the spot of removed Confederate monuments that reference the removal and the historical corrective the removal represents.

(Postscript: after writing the foregoing, I was reminded that Doyle Rader raised some of the same points for D Magazine in 2015.)

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Comments

  • Greg Brown

    I was curious to see what would happen to the Lenin Statues and Berlin Wall when they all came down. Beyond the occasional statement piece, they are all relegated to the trash pile. That seems a fitting end to symbols of failed tyranny.

    • Brian Cleveland

      Greg, FDR, a democrat who lead the free world against fascism and the Nazis, was the one who dedicated the Robert E. Lee statue in Dallas, TX in 1936. I can’t know exactly his feelings about the Civil War, but obviously he felt it was important to reflect on the turbulent nature of our past in order to know where we are in the present.
      The real truth is that people calling for removal of Confederate monuments today have no interest in history, know next to nothing about Lee except what they read on social media, don’t care, and are not trying to improve the world. When you use words “tyranny” “failed” “Nazi” “Hitler” you are motivated by the same hate and revenge you claim to be trying to fight. Although all the racists of Jim Crow were democrats, today people associate Confederates with conservatives. Feeling defeated by conservative ideas, you decide to attack statues that cannot defend themselves and use the word “racist” as a weapon to shut down any contrary ideas.
      The Lee statue was dedicated by perhaps the most beloved president of the 20th Century. The other Dallas Confederate monument, created by a German born immigrant who came from Chicago and worked to build the Texas capitol in Austin, was commissioned by the Daughters of the Confederacy to commemorate fathers, brothers, and husbands killed in the Civil War. It is one of the oldest historic memorials in Dallas and not a single word or symbol on it suggests racism or tyranny. No matter what nation, army, or leader one served, fallen veterans deserve some respect and removing this memorial is a symbolic gesture to get revenge by shaming them and their progeny.
      I’m surprised that more people with common sense have not realized that the “Social Warriors” who claim to want a better world are really as bitter and hateful as any Jim Crow racist. It’s a joke to remove history and pretend that that makes our society better. It makes zero sense and time will tell that removing monuments is symptomatic of social instability. Take a look at New Orleans.

      • Greg Brown

        “It makes zero sense and time will tell that removing monuments is symptomatic of social instability.”
        Who, exactly, will be unstable if this happens? Those that look to the future or those that live in the past?

        • Brian Cleveland

          Find me stable nations that are taking down hundred year old statues for political reasons. Most references people give for statue removal are Nazi Germany, Saddam’s Iraq, and Stalinist Russia. Isis tears down statues, New Orleans tears down statues. Is that instability enough for you?

      • Brenda Marks

        To infer all you do to FDR is pure indulgence. Most likely his appearance had far more to do with maintaining a good working and political relationship with Southern Democrats in Congress who felt threatened by his legislative outreach to African Americans.

        • Brian Cleveland

          Well Brenda considering just about every bit of evidence trying to prove how devilishly evil a frickin statue is has been 100% inference, I believe I can enjoy a tiny of it myself.

  • The problem is, you can’t “confront” Lee without confronting Sherman’s March to the Sea at the same time.

    Lee didn’t burn free negro and white people alike out of the homes. Lee didn’t burn major civilian cities.

    • Greg Brown

      You are right. I am scraping off that Sherman’s’ March To the Sea Party ’16 sticker I put on my Truck last year.

    • Mavdog

      “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war […] I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success. But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.”

      General Sherman response to the Atlanta City Council request to rescind his order to evacuate the city. “War is hell” Sherman is quoted as saying, and clearly he was right.

  • RAB

    Regardless of which way you might lean on the resolution of the Confederate statues, one thing is clear from Mr. Simek’s post: the boy can write. D Magazine is luck to have him.

  • Los_Politico

    Thoughts on renaming the three Dallas elementary schools with confederate general names?

  • Brian Cleveland

    Please sign the petition to keep Dallas’ historic 1896 and 1936 Confederate monuments!

    https://www.change.org/p/dallas-mayor-mike-rawlings-keep-dallas-historic-confederate-monuments-where-they-are

    • MattL1

      No.

    • Brenda Marks

      No thanks.

  • Mavdog

    I’ll take option number one please, with a caveat that the “artwork” include educational features that discuss the inhumanity of slavery, the role that slavery played in the attempt of the Confederacy to destroy the Union, and the Jim Crow era that followed and how these statues represent the message of that time.

    Leave the statues but at the same time use them as representation of an ideology that our nation has chosen to reject in favor of the goal of racial equality.

  • bill holston

    I completely agree with you Zac. I would not remove, I’d change the name of the park to honor an African American Leader, put up statues confronting the legacy of lynching and jim crow here. I would not however be upset if the statues were moved either.

    I’m a many generation Southerner, many ancestors fought for the South and I’m pretty well read in Civil War History. I do not believe we should consider people who fought on the side of slavery should be honored. Remembered yes, honored no.

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  • Art is in the eye of the beholder. Here’s my art proposal. Leave the Robert E Lee statue alone. Don’t even put up a plaque. But don’t clean and polish it anymore either. Let the birds shit on it. Let the weeds grow around it. Let it gradually take on the appearance of the dustbin of history that it so rightly belongs in.

  • TheHoneyBadger

    Texas, whatcha gonna do when the Beaners demand you bulldoze the Alamo?

    • Happy Bennett

      Probably next on the “imagined offense” list.

    • Kathy Wise

      You realize that Santa Anna won at the Alamo, right? Your choice of words indicates a misunderstanding of history on a variety of levels.

      • TheHoneyBadger

        Santa Anna may have won that battle but “Remember the Alamo, remember Goliad” became the great rallying cry of the Texas Revolution that cost him the war at San Jacinto. Sam Huston made a great mistake by not hanging Santa Anna for his crimes.

        • Mavdog

          It was not the “rallying cry of the Texas Revolution that cost [Santa Anna] the war at San Jacinto”, it was a series of events; the capture of a Mexican courier in April who had all of the planning documents on the Mexican Army’s campaign against the Texan army, Houston’s plan to avoid battle with the Mexican Army until he could be certain of some advantage (which almost cost him the allegiance of his troops), the decision of Santa Anna to set up camp along the San Jacinto river in a place with little cover, and the exhaustion of the Mexican troops from their over 24 hour march to reinforce the small group of soldiers in Santa Anna’s army. The Mexican troops were asleep in the mid-afternoon when Houston’s men attacked, and they could not group into a defensive posture. It was a slaughter as the Mexican troops ran through the marsh of the river in an attempt to escape.

        • PeterTx52

          Sam Huston?????

  • Lolotehe

    My dad had a “colored” sign, allegedly the last one taken down from the Tarrant county court-house, on the bathroom door of his office for years. I guess it meant something to him, the “gringo with a green card”.

  • Brian Cleveland

    And I guess you think we should not allow future generations to watch Birth of a Nation.

  • Happy Bennett

    Even the Soviets in all their glory were astute enough to keep all of their artistic and culturally relevant equestrian and other statuary to their Czars including in St Petersburg alone: Peter the Great (x4), Czar Nicholas I, Czar Alexander III, Catherine the Great also the Bronze Horseman in the Decemberist Square. To my knowledge no Palaces (Hermitage) or other vestiges of the Imperialist Czarist regime were destroyed. The churches were shuttered or converted to government buildings but not willfully destroyed. Even the soviets appreciated art, unlike some perpetual malcontents here.

  • JohnyAlamo

    The fact that everyone is discussing Dallas’ painful past because of these statues, is a good thing. I say we take the Lee statue down when we have finally eradicated racism.

  • PeterTx52

    recently I was in Slovakia for a week’s trip. Throughout that country are monuments to the Soviet soldiers who liberated the country from the Nazis. not one has been removed. oh and it was a communist country for over 50 years

  • alexander troup

    I didn’t like the fact they were throwing away so many old records when I worked there and when I went back last year they were still hiding stuff to be thrown out……and they spend all of that county time on a water fountain, when old records dating back to 1880 are being tossed out…and this is not made up….A/T, Once upon a time Dallas research Historian goes into the future.