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History Demands That Dallas Tears Down Its Confederate War Memorial

Tomorrow the city council could vote to keep the monument and add "historical context" to offset negative connotations. That would be a mistake.
By Peter Simek |

Tomorrow, the Dallas City Council will revisit the question of its Confederate monuments, months after a task force that deliberated the monuments’ history and significance recommended the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Oak Lawn Park in Uptown and the removal of the Confederate War Memorial adjacent to the Dallas Convention Center. City staff has suggested revising those recommendations, and so the council now has an opening – based mostly on pragmatic questions of cost – to backtrack on the task force’s recommendations, keep the Confederate monument, and turn the entire public process into a sham.

The process was already rushed and insufficient. Mayor Mike Rawlings called the task force in response to growing fear that the many Confederate monuments and statues scattered throughout the American South were becoming totems of a new white nationalist movement. In Charlottesville last year, lest we ever forget, one of these white supremacist/white nationalists drove his car into a crowd of protesters who supported the removal of that city’s Lee statue, murdering a young woman.

In Dallas, the Lee statue was hastily removed, but the larger Confederate memorial still stands. Now city staff suggests it should remain standing because it would be too expensive to move or dismantle. It suggests adding “historical context” to help sort out all the icky-ness of its associations with white nationalism.

If the city staff thinks historical context is sufficient to nullify the monument’s lingering import as a conveyer of another generation’s ideas about the South, Anglo-culture, the Civil War, and the interpretation of its legacy, well, here’s some historical context.

The Confederate Monument was dedicated in Dallas in the spring of 1897. In his book White Metropolis, Michael Phillips recounts how the 1890s were a critical period in the development of Dallas political history, a time in which the growing city’s power structure coalesced and its attitudes about race and segregation entrenched.

During the previous decades, the growing, industrializing city showed signs of a rising progressive movement, but Phillips writes how various populist and workers movements fizzled out, in part, “because of violence, intimidation, and the charge that it advocated ‘race mixing.’” A new power structure was establishing itself through the 1890s, and one of its principles was that Dallas was to be a segregated city. This rising political class would consolidate its power after the turn of the century by eliminating Dallas ward system of governance, forgoing neighborhood representation for a new commission comprised of what Phillips calls “the commercial elite.”

This system of government entrenched segregation, in part by redirecting municipal services. “White poor and working-class neighborhoods as well as black communities for years would lack basic services such as modern plumbing, electricity and trash collection,” Powers writes. In 1907, this commission “amended the city charter to impose racial segregation in schools, churches, and public amusement venues.”

Phillips’ book cites several city leaders and powerful businessmen who openly espoused their philosophical justifications for expanded segregation in Dallas, but one such character, Dallas attorney Lewis Meriwether Dabney, stands out:

Dabney urged other Dallas leaders to restrict immigration and eliminate the right to vote to all but the most “qualified” white men. Dabney’s comments came in the context of mass German and Jewish immigration into Dallas in the late nineteenth century, the arrival of Mexican Americans in large number between 1910 and 1930, and the development of a growing Sicilian community in the first three decades of the twentieth century. He blamed the growth of those communities on the Anglo-Saxons who created such a comfortable civilization that now even the racial dregs of the world thrived. ‘As society has advanced from the primitive to the semi-civilized . . . its functioning has been biologically adverse to the best strains and favorable to the worst,’ Dabney said in an address to the Dallas’ influential Critic Club in December 1922.

Dabney’s words – which also expressed fear of the rise of the “African Hottentot”  and the spread of “mongrelized Asiatics, Greeks, Leventines, Southern Italians, and sweepings of the Balkans, of Poland and of Russia” – are important to recount when we start to talk about historical context. His words embody a cultural feeling that was dominant in Dallas at the time of the erection of the Confederate memorial and flesh out the sentiment that led to its commissioning. It was a sentiment that extended beyond the desire to embed in stone a nostalgic, rosy eyed view of the Civil War; a honorific tribute to military bravery; or a resolute embrace of a bruised cultural heritage. The erection of the monument was a deeply felt and publicly proclaimed symbolic act that planted these cultural beliefs about race and society at the very center of Dallas’ political, cultural, and social identity at the turn of the 20th century.

The Confederate War Memorial was, like many of the Confederate monuments erected throughout the South at this time, an attempt to demonstrate that, despite having lost the Civil War, the slow march towards the dream of a segregated and pure Anglo-Saxon society was still very much a work in progress. It was a commemoration of a world in which white supremacy was such an integral and implicit part of the cultural outlook, the words “white supremacy” hardly needed to be uttered.

This was not the disposition of a handful of politically powerful local leaders who clung to Confederate nostalgia. The great enthusiasm for the mission represented by the monument was on full display during its commemoration, which is recounted in detail in John William Rogers’ The Lusty Texans of Dallas (1951). Even in the middle of the 20th century, in a city that was still segregated and still dominated by Jim Crow, Rogers’ wit sees through some of the ostentation and overblown enthusiasm of the event. In the interest of historic context, his recount is worth reprinting in detail:

In the spring of 1897, Dallas achieved such a monument. It was her first and was born of the urge that was sweeping America from New England to Texas to memorialize the brave soldiers of the War Between the States. The Dallas statue was erected through the efforts of the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy and in the ugly, stiff tradition of the time, it was no uglier than most such statues that were erected through the land – only characteristically more elaborate. Where most memorial committees contented themselves with a single shaft, Dallas not only had a tall central shaft surmounted by the figure of a private Confederate soldier, but around this also were four lesser columns on which stood the four leaders of the Confederacy – Lee, Davis, Jackson, an Johnston. Upon the base of the main column also was a medallion of the head of General William L. Cabell, Dallas’ own general. The main column was also adorned with what had been chosen as appropriate quotations carved in the stone – one of which is striking enough in its sentiment to be quoted here for it says:


The statue was placed on the north end of the City Park where it stands today, and never in the history of the town except when the two steamboats tied up on the river at the foot of Main Street did it have such a celebration. No Southern general being available as visitors, the Daughters of the Confederacy invited as honor guests for the ceremony Jefferson Davis’ daughter, Mrs. Margaret Hayes and her two children, Lucy Hayes and Jefferson Davis Hayes. Also, the celebration drew Mrs. Jackson, widow of General “Stonewall” Jackson.

When the Hayes arrived from Denver at the Texas and Pacific Depot, gray-haired veterans unhitched the horses from the carriage that was to drive them to the Oriental Hotel and pulled the vehicle through the streets themselves. Floral tributes arrived for the honor guests from neighboring cities and that night at the Oriental, there was a reception and ball which [Beau Monde society reporter] Mrs. Fitzgerald termed “an affair of state.”

It was attended by 2000 people and introducing the honor guests in the reception line was Mrs. Katie Cabell Currie, daughter of General Cabell. Unfortunately, Mrs. “Stonewall” Jackson, worn out with her long railroad journey was too fatigued to attend. She spent the evening resting in the home of Judge Mutt Crawford where she was an house guest. But at the reception she was not forgotten. Let Mrs. Fitzgerald who saw it with her own sharp eyes describe the scene to you:

“The parlors where Mrs. Katie Cabell Currie, president of the Daughters of the Confederacy received hundreds of guests and introduced them to the guests of honor were beautiful in their spring adornment of roses, lilies, and pansies that shed their sweet southern fragrance from every niche and corner while palms and ivy vines growing lilies and smilax grouped the fireplace and festooned the draperies, mantels and chandeliers. Mrs. Currie garnered in a beautiful white organdy, garnered with white satin ribbon, chiffon, valenciennes lace, with diamonds flashing among the laces and in her dark hair, and a cluster of American Beauty roses in her hand, stood on the dais, laid with abig white angora rug and set with blooming Easter lilies and crimson roses, representing in their exquisite blooms the rpoud colors of the Daughters.

“By her side stood Mrs. Margaret Hayes, the regal looking daughter of the revered Jefferson Davis, in a Paris robe d’interieur  of gold colored satin brocade, with sodets outlined in woven pearls and finished with a rose ruche of blondine chiffon, that formed the décolleté bodice and a Pasha girdle, tied in front and dropping low in the petticoat in a rain of pearls. Exquisite old point lace and daffodils formed the garniture about the low neck, in which flashed a constellation of diamond stars – one seeming to have strayed to her dark tresses, where it twinkled just above her forehead on a beaten-gold bandeau. Mrs. Hayes favored the yellow rose of Texas in her bouquet and enshrined herself in the heart of Texas by the sweetness and graciousness of her manner.

“A vacant chair draped in the Confederate flag and decorated in lilies and jasmine set in state among the flowers for Mrs. Stonewall Jackson who was too ill to be present.”

The next day came the unveiling ceremonies which began with what Mrs. Fitzgerald calls without explaining it a “love feast,” at the auditorium and closed at City Park with oratory and the decoration of the monument with flowers. Thirty Thousand people were on hand at the park for the memorable day.

Why is it important to revisit this recount in all of its vivid detail? It’s not to celebrate Fitzgerald’s unquestionable stature as the greatest society reporter Dallas has ever known. It is to see in the pomp and circumstance of the dedication the true scale of symbolic import the monument had to the imagination of the city at a critical time in its history. At the very moment in which the worst aspects of Jim Crow apartheid were being solidified into the cultural and political norms of Dallas, the highest echelons of Dallas society – flanked by 30,000 ebullient citizens – participated in a communal ritual that sang loudly the true intention of the moment as a continuation of a dream of Anglo-dominance that they did not believe to have ended with the closing of the civil war.

It is impossible to read this account of the dedication – from the royal-like procession of Jefferson Davis’ widow’s soldier-borne carriage to the Confederate flag draped over Stonewall Jackson’s widow’s vacant chair at the gala – and not see the Confederate memorial as anything other than a declaration of the desire to advance a dying dream, a dream rooted in an implicit belief in white supremacy.

This may be a difficult idea for some people to swallow. There are a lot of people who grew up during the cultural revolution represented by the erection of the Confederate monument – the children of the Lost Cause Movement, who were raised in a time in which many of the myths the South told itself enshrined misconceptions about the true depths of inhumanity that underpinned nearly every aspect of its society by virtue of the legacy of slavery and its subsequent continuance through apartheid-like polices. This country has clearly not yet come to terms with the real legacy and lingering impact of slavery and segregation. That legacy must be confronted, and part of that confrontation involves breaking the nostalgic attachment to misconceptions of the American South that were part of the educational agenda of the Lost Cause movement. There is great richness and beauty in the cultural heritage of the South, but there is no need to hold on to the totems of the most abominable aspects of the South’s historical character.

This is the only historical context for the Confederate memorial that the city is now balking on removing from its continued place of prominence in Founders Cemetery adjacent to the Dallas Convention Center. The historical context is the full story of this city’s darkest and most despicable historical attitudes. It is a shameful history. It is the story of the waging of a second civil war, a battle that was fought not with guns, but through monumental symbols, cultural bullying, and legislation that enforced secretion and disenfranchised communities on racial grounds. It is the history that saw as many as 4,000 African-Americans murdered throughout the South by lynching, including W.R. Taylor, who was hanged by a mob in the Trinity River Bottoms in 1889, only a few years before the monument’s erection, and Allen Brooks, who would be lynched on Main St. a few years later in 1910.

How do you provide this historical context at the site of the Confederate Monument today? You can’t. Should the monument be preserved for history’s sake? Why? What historical value is there in preserving the statue other than paying heed to our nostalgic affinity for such a disgusting display of ignorance? There are better ways of telling this regrettable history to future generations. A photo of the Confederate monument and Fitzgerald’s florid description of its dedication would suffice.

No. The only way to unseat the triumphalism of the dream of a white dominated society that is written into the very aesthetic form of the moment is to tear it down, no matter the cost. That was the task force’s recommendation, and that is what the council should decide to do tomorrow.

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