Local News

An Afternoon With Robert E. Lee and the Sons and Daughters of Dallas

After a few hours waiting for the historic removal of a Confederate Monument from a city park, a court injunction killed the party.

By the time I arrived at Lee Park, about 30 minutes after this morning’s Council vote, the southbound lanes of Turtle Creek Boulevard were already shut down and blocked off by police to make way for the massive crane. When it arrived, the crane promised to hoist the 81-year-old statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee out of its position of honor in the park that bears his name.

There were about 40 or 50 people on the scene, holding cameras or leaning against the barrier, chatting. Some had just come from City Hall and were demonstrative in their dismay with what they had witnessed there. Others had wandered down from nearby office buildings during lunch to see what the hubbub was all about.

Jerome Finney, who works up the block, said he had heard about the news on Twitter and simply came to see what was going on. He was surprised that Dallas was moving the statue at all.

“I don’t think there has been a lot of uproar here, not as much as elsewhere,” Finney said. He added that his surprise was also related to his perception that, unlike Austin, where he had previously lived, “Dallas is such a city of the South.”

If today’s Council vote was about anything, it was about showing that being a city in the South doesn’t have to be synonymous with holding onto the symbols of Southern history that also express the South’s legacy of slavery and racial violence. And there wasn’t much uproar at Lee Park either, which may have been the point of scheduling the removal of the statue so close to the Council’s vote. There was no time to rally the usual characters who accompany these kinds of happenings these days, the semi-professional Confederate flag bearers, jittery heritage activists, and extremist neo-fascists. In fact, throughout the day, the most threatening thing about the spontaneous event was the random outbreak of grating, ill-informed historical conversations.

A quick survey of the crowd during the lunch hour recognized a preponderance of silvery-haired men and women, mostly older than 60, as well behaved as they were dressed. Not that they weren’t upset. Some chatted about ousting North Dallas council members Jennifer Staubach Gates and Lee Kleinman in retaliation for support of the mayor’s gambit to remove the statue. Others simply shook their heads and expressed their disappointment in the process and lack of public input.

There was one flag. Gray-bearded Lamar Huffstutler sauntered up Hall Street draped in the battle flag of the First Texas Infantry and called the action a “stepping stone” on the way to a communist-style reeducation of Americans. There were some removal supporters, too. When a lanky, long-haired, college-aged man arrived on the scene, his friend, a woman standing off to the side of the back barricade, yelled out, “I’m over here with the liberals!” He went to join the small posse that included a bearded father with an infant strapped to his chest and a young man brandishing a ukulele and wearing an Indivisible DFW t-shirt.

Downtown and Oak Lawn’s councilman, Philip Kingston, an early champion of the statue removal effort, arrived around 12:50 and took up a post in the shade of a Live Oak. He surveyed the scene, looked pleased, and chatted with reporters and constituents for a while before departing. South Dallas Councilman Dwaine Caraway made a more conspicuous appearance. He entered with an entourage of dark suited men and women, and they were escorted by police under the yellow tape and across the park lawn, where they posed for photographs at the base of the statue. By the time Caraway was finished, the crane had arrived, and workers began the slow task of staking up counterweights in preparation of hoisting the 12,000-pound statue onto the back of a flatbed truck.

And so we waited.

The news crews gathered. The crowd thickened and turned younger and more diverse as the afternoon drew on. Men in yellow vests and hardhats measured the statue and propped ladders up against its sides. Police, some decked out in bullet-proof vests and carrying automatic weapons, milled around, looking a little bored, chatted with the crowd, and otherwise enjoyed the cool, breezy late summer day. We all anticipated the promised surrealist scene: the old general on his massive horse, followed at his heel by the unnamed soldier, set to flight for a brief, thrilling moment before being ushered off to an undisclosed location to await his uncertain future.

The counterweights finally in place, the crane lowered its hoist toward the bronze as a WFAA news chopper and a tiny drone hung overhead. The crowd hushed as the workers scurried up onto the mammoth monument, one taking a seat behind Lee to help maneuver the yellow straps under the bellies of the horses. The odd scene — eight or so little workers in vests and hardhats crawling around and around the fixed, daunting girth of the general and his soldier — only heightened the grandeur of the monument itself, surely a skillful and striking piece of sculpture, and one that, in this setting, couldn’t hide its intended conveyance of might and permanence.

As the workers continued their preparations, the crowd passed the time by lapsing into verbal spats. Barbara Williams, who lives nearby on Maple Avenue, stood at attention in the mud in pumps and a gold embroidered dress at the edge the back barricade for the better part of three hours, taking turns sparing with anyone who got close enough to overhear her running commentary. She tangled at times with Dallas Park Board President Bobby Abtahi, art dealer David Quadrini, and artist and curator Cynthia Mulcahy, arguing that the statue has nothing to do with racism, that Robert E. Lee never owned slaves, and that there was never any trouble like this on the Georgian farms of her youth where all the black workers tended the fields in happy harmony. She took a call from a friend in Colorado whose great aunt Maddie Slaughter had donated an unknown sum of money to the original commissioning of the statue and who now sat in her home 800 miles away, sickened by the news from Dallas.

Not long after the workers attached the straps under the horses, it became clear that the task was larger than they had anticipated. They began to pry crowbars under the solid bronze base, which set the hulking object at a slight wobble. Seams from the 81-year-old welding job were visible around the horses’ hooves and across the back third of the base, prompting some to worry that the whole thing might come apart in the air. When workers produced a drill and began to burrow a hole through the back of the bronze base, they invited shouts of advice from the crowd.

“Don’t chip it!” shouted a bystander.

“Is that the point of this plan, to drill a hole in it?” yelled another.

Still, the statue wouldn’t budge. The workers produced a larger drill with a 2-foot-long bit and began to attack the concrete. They separated a portion of the plinth, pried it loose, and began to repeat the procedure on the other side. By this time, it was after 4 p.m. A tired worker in a white hardhat with a piece of blue tape bearing the words “Team Panda” running across its side wandered over to the barricade. He explained to a few members of the crowd that the workers had discovered that the statue was installed with anchors that had been set into the wet concrete of the base, an engineering detail they had not expected.

“The city records of how it was installed are all wrong,” he said.

The plan, he went on to explain, was to remove the sides of the top portion of the plinth and saw though the anchors. If that didn’t release the statue, they would have to pry it up high enough to see if there were additional anchors near the center of the statue, which would also have to be sawed through.

They set back to the task. Williams found someone new to talk to, a man who said he ran youth leadership programs at a Dallas rec center. He had a friend, he told Williams, who lived up the block and deliberately avoided Lee Park on her daily runs because she didn’t like running past a park “dedicated to the Confederacy.” Williams said the statue and the park had nothing to do with slavery.

“FDR, a Democrat, came here to dedicate it,” she said.

“Well, he shouldn’t have,” the man said.

“I agree,” she said, the two finding rare common ground.

A few minutes later, a member of the work crew walked away from the site talking on his phone. When he returned, the drilling stopped. The Team Panda worker returned to the barricade.

“It is not happening today,” he said. “Court injunction.”

There were a few moments of edgy confusion as the news spread through the crowd. I texted the mayor’s spokesman for confirmation. Councilman Scott Griggs posted the news on Facebook, and The Dallas Morning News tweeted it out. Noted “Neo-Confederate” lawyer Kirk Lyons had filed for a temporary restraining order to halt the removal of the stuck statue, and it had been granted by U.S. District Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater of the Northern District of Texas. Despite the morning vote and the long afternoon of labor, September 6, 2017, would not be the day when the symbol of the old South was removed from its place of honor in Dallas’ public park.

The crowd began to disperse, and a loud holler went up from its rear.

“Yee-owww-hoooo!”

A man in a wide-brimmed tan cowboy hat, a plaid button-down shirt, and a big buckle on a thick leather belt stood in a clearing.

“Guys, it’s a court injunction,” he bellowed. “Party’s over!”

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