Two years and two task forces later, the city of Dallas has edged a little closer to removing a 65-foot Confederate War Memorial that sits next to the convention center in Founders Park downtown. At a briefing today, the Dallas City Council signaled to the city manager that they would like an item placed on their next meeting agenda that would allow them to vote to dissemble, remove, and store the monument.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen. What the council will technically be voting on is a referendum that says the Confederate War Monument is a non-contributing feature of the Founders Park historic overlay, and so it should be removed. If it passes, that will send the item to the Landmark Commission, which must vote within 65 days on whether it agrees that the 124-year-old monument is a non-contributing hunk of junk in an otherwise historic park. If the commission rejects the council’s motion, the city will automatically appeal the decision to the city plan commission. That body will have another 65 days to vote on the item. If they also reject the council’s push for removal, the city will sue, and the whole thing will end up in court.
Then again, if the Landmark Commission backs the council there will likely be suits seeking to keep the monument—just as before. In other words, this thing isn’t done yet.
But today’s meeting did signal that a majority of the council favored the removal of the monument—a 65-foot tall obelisk flanked by statues of four confederate generals that was erected in Old City Park in 1896 and later moved to its current spot. The only council member who spoke in favor of keeping the statue was Pleasant Grove representative Rickey Callahan.
The resolve to demolish the monument marks a shift from previous times this issue has come before the council. When the question of removal first surfaced, at a time when cities around the country were taking down their monuments in the wake of the Charlottesville attack, council opted to create a task force to study the issue. That task force recommended the monument be taken down, but then three of the four African American council members voted to keep the monuments. The council created a second task force. Today, city staff returned to the council with three options: keep it, trash it, or commission artist Lauren Woods to create an art installation around the sculpture that could recontextualize and investigate its symbolic meaning and power.
Woods is no stranger to this kind of artistic practice. She is best known locally for A Dallas Drinking Fountain Project, an installation Woods created in a Dallas County building after renovations had uncovered the faded remnants of a “white only” sign above the fountain. Today, when you press the button to have a sip of water, it triggers a video projection of documentary footage showing police spraying fire hoses at Civil Rights marchers in Birmingham, AL. More recently, Woods was caught up in some controversy after she indefinitely postponed the opening of her exhibition examining police brutality at the University Art Museum at Cal State University-Long Beach in reaction to the controversial and conspicuously timed firing of the curator of her exhibition.
In other words, Woods is an artist with a strong track record in boldly confronting the kind of racist history represented by the monument, and what she was proposed was not the kind of “historical context” or placing of a plaque or marker next to the memorial that supporters of the Confederate monuments have advocated for. Rather, Woods offered a sophisticated argument for confronting the racist power of the monument by creating a work of art that shifts, alters, or disassembles the symbolic meaning of the memorial in a way that would force viewers to confront its power and history.
“Traditional practices of contextualization involve placing a historical plaque next to an object to situate its place in history,” Woods said. “So if contextualization means to place or study in context—meaning we acknowledge that these monuments were erected as part of a racist propaganda campaign—then the project of recontextualization goes a step further by extracting the object from its original context in order to introduce it into another context. Recontextualization implies a change of meaning and therefore a new communicative purpose.”
The Office of Cultural Affairs asked the council to offer Woods 120 days to create a proposal before sending it back for reconsideration.
“To raze the monument, seed over the space with grass, and then plop down a park bench is definitely better than leaving this object as it is now, but I contend that it stops short in the movement to address structural oppression and its history in the symbolic realm,” Woods said. “I contend that we confront history in its fullness and go even a step further—which is to honor those who were and are part of the protracted struggle towards a more racially, socially, and economically just society.”
That proved too much of an ask for council members, who appeared eager to be rid of the monument and done with the issue. The black members of the council shared personal stories of how the legacy of racism and segregation has affected and shaped their lives and the lives of their family members. Councilman Tennell Atkins spoke about having to hire extra security in the wake of the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument because of threats that he had received. Council member Kevin Felder told a story about his grandmother showing him her poll tax card.
“There is no question in my mind where I am,” Felder said. “We must take it down; we don’t need to re-invision anything.”
Mayor Mike Rawlings and Council members Sandy Greyson and Jennifer Staubach Gates expressed openness to Woods’ proposal, but if they want to see it move forward, they will have to amend the vote to remove the monument.
There was one holdout who didn’t want to see the memorial go anywhere. We’ve written extensively how the monument fits into the ugly history of Dallas–about how it was erected within the context of the Lost Cause movement, which harbored a nostalgia for an idealized world of the antebellum South and erected similar monuments throughout the south, a practiced accompanied by a reassertion of many of the white supremacist ideals of that society. Against the backdrop of that history, it was peculiar to hear Pleasant Grove Council member Rickey Callahan argue so passionately for the monument’s preservation, even suggesting that the matter be to a public referendum.
Listening to Callahan, one couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if other advances of the Civil Rights movement, such as voting rights or desegregation, had been put out for public referendum in Dallas in 1896, 1966—or even 1986, for that matter.