There has been much discussion about the “problem” of Confederate statuary and emblems on government property, not just in San Antonio but across the country.
In 1952, despite protests from the San Antonio Conservation Society, the Vance House at the corner of Nueva and Dwyer was demolished. According to an historical marker erected at the site, one of its claims to fame was the frequent visits by U.S. Army Lieutenant-Colonel Robert E. Lee who later became a general in the Confederate States of America. But because the monument marking this site had a Confederate flag, the marker was recently removed.
For some people, history is enriched by such emblems. For others, it is a reminder of racism. In a Rivard Report article last month, it was reported that Mario Salas, a member of the San Antonio Coalition for Civil and Human Rights, Manuel Medina, Bexar County Democratic Party chairman, Councilmember Rey Saldaña (D4), and others want a Travis Park memorial of the Confederate dead removed.
Some prefer the Taliban solution. The Taliban, you may remember, were offended by the statues of Buddha in the Bamyan Valley of Afghanistan. Because of their religious intolerance, the Taliban destroyed these historic sixth-century monuments in 2001.
The Nazi solution was for traces of many Jewish cemeteries to be obliterated. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a wall that is a replica of a road the Nazis built using memorials for the dead as paving stones. I hope today’s whitewashers of history don’t get a similar idea to repurpose the Travis Park memorial for the Confederate dead.
Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1) wants to surround the image of the Confederate soldier in Travis Park with educational signage (see the Rivard Report article here). I don’t think that’s the answer either.
The statue of the Spanish Conquistador in front of the Spanish Governor’s Palace (in the backyard of City Hall) is a reminder to some of the subjugation of a glorious Aztec culture. But this conqueror is not surrounded by a half-dozen distractive educational panels.
On top of the new VIA Metropolitan Transit offices (the former International & Great Northern Railroad depot), there is a bronze statue of an Indian shooting an arrow towards the Northeast. Is he aiming at American settlers? Do we need several descriptive placards here?
Waldine Tauch created a bas-relief figure of “The First Inhabitant” in full feathered headdress. It stands serenely on the Commerce Street Bridge. Does the Councilmember believe we need some educational plaques detailing the deprivations the Native Americans suffered at the hands of European immigrants?
We have statues of cowboys in front of the Briscoe Western Art Museum and atop the Kallison building down the street from City Hall. There are no accompanying educational panels to explain the possible racist past of such characters.
Can you picture a tourist taking a picture of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with a camera made in Vietnam? The monument depicts a Marine searching the sky for a helicopter to help his wounded friend. Do we need a sign explaining the history of Vietnamese-American relations next to this sculpture? I think not.
Some memorials may be best unbuilt. For all the clamoring about the pro-slavery cause of the Alamo defenders (it was not), it is interesting to note there is not a statue or street on earth to honor Antonio López de Santa Anna. While San Antonio does have a sculpture of Mexican revolutionary leader Francisco Madero, there is no monument to Porfirio Diaz whose iron rule precipitated Madero’s revolution.
Few memorials are as controversial as the one erected in 1927 in Natchitoches, LA. A statue of an elderly African-American, smiling, hat in hand, hunched over in an attitude of servitude, stood above a plaque that read, “Dedicated to the arduous and faithful services of the good darkies of Louisiana.”
Anglos and Afro-Americans took turns being outraged by this figure. Instead of being destroyed (as almost happened in 1968) or forever resting in someone’s backyard (as was its fate for several years), the statue was moved to the Louisiana State University Rural Life Museum in 1974. It is now surrounded by four educational plaques.
But I propose a different solution for those who view our Confederate memorial as a problem.
The park is named for William Barret Travis, the grandson of an indentured servant and the commander of the Texas forces at the Alamo. Put a statue of him in one corner of the park – but put another one too.
Travis was one of a handful of defenders at the Alamo who owned a slave. His name was Joe and it is through him that we know of much of the battle.
Joe was the one who relayed the news of the fall of the Alamo to the Texas Revolutionary Cabinet. Joe’s first person account helped Sam Houston and other leaders understand the gravity of the threat from Santa Anna and how to overcome this tyrannical dictator.
Not only did Joe serve his master, he served the call of freedom – his own and his new-found country. He fired his guns at the enemy at the Alamo but was spared death because of his race. But for all his tribulation, after the Republic was assured, Joe was sent to the Travis estate in South Carolina to continue his bondage.
Nonetheless, on the first anniversary of the battle of San Jacinto, Joe escaped. Because the ad for his return ran for three months, it is believed he was not recaptured. One book suggests that Joe was the younger brother of the escaped slave and abolitionist narrator William Wells Brown as well as the grandson of frontier pioneer Daniel Boone. Did Joe return to Texas as claimed in an Austin newspaper in 1877? Is he buried in an unmarked grave in southern Alabama?
Instead of removing an historic statue or offering one person’s interpretation of what it means, perhaps we should shed light on another aspect of history.
Perhaps we should honor Joe at Travis Park.
*Featured/top image: Detail of the monument in Travis Park dedicated to fallen Confederate soldiers. Photo by Scott Ball.
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