Houston Takes a Wait & See Stance on Confederate Statues

HOUSTON (CN) — Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says he will take his time to decide what to do with two Confederate statues in city parks, as the issue of Confederate monuments boils over across the South.

Turner, an African-American Democrat who served 26 years in the Texas Legislature, said he is forming an advisory team of city staffers and college professors to take an inventory of the city’s statues and recommend what to do with any that celebrate the Confederacy.

“There will not be any attempt to erase history,” turner said at a news conference. “It’s important on the city level that we deal with it in a very thoughtful way, that we recognize history, good, bad, ugly, pretty, and that we come up with criteria that determine the appropriate placement, the appropriate context and then move accordingly and, quite frankly, I’m going to take my time doing that.”

Turner said he knows of only two pro-Confederate statues in Houston: “The Spirit of the Confederacy,” a towering bronze winged angel commissioned by Robert E. Lee Chapter 186 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and erected in 1908 at a park near City Hall, and a statue of Major Richard William “Dick” Dowling commissioned by the city in 1905 that stands in a park near the Houston Zoo.

Butch Day, a Houstonian and member of the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he agrees with Turner’s wait-and-see approach and said the mayor should turn the decision over to voters.

“No mayor or city council should have the sole authority of such a decision without proper voice of the residents first brought by vote,” he said.

Turner’s caution is an anomaly amid outrage over the violent protests that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend when white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on the town to protest the planned removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The mayors of Baltimore and Gainesville, Florida this week praised the removal of Confederate statues in their cities, and protesters in Durham, North Carolina pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier in front of a courthouse.

San Antonio City Council members are pushing a measure to take down a Confederate statue from the center of a city park.

Turner said at the Wednesday news conference that he disagrees with President Donald Trump’s statements that people who turned out to condemn racism in Charlottesville shared equal blame for the violence.

“I think it’s also very important that we don’t allow the national discourse and what’s been said and how things have been handled on the national level to flow down into the city of Houston and pull us apart to be divisive,” Turner said.

But a Facebook post for a “Destroy the Confederacy” rally planned for Saturday, calling for removal of “The Spirit of the Confederacy” statue near City Hall, organized by a Houston Black Lives Matter leader, includes this message: “Do NOT bring children.”

The organizer, Ashton P. Woods, did not respond Thursday to questions about the event.

Houston police spokesman Victor Senties said Thursday that the department does not typically comment on its plans to patrol events, but is preparing a statement about the rally for the media, which was not delivered by press time.

Senties said guns are allowed at city parks because Texas is an open-carry state for people licensed to do so.

Trump called the Confederate monument takedowns “foolish” on Twitter Thursday and asked whether statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are next. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” he wrote.

The Confederate memorial debate is also raging in Austin.

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, an African-American, sent a letter to the Texas State Preservation Board on Wednesday, asking it to immediately remove a plaque that’s “a mere 40 steps” from his office at the State Capitol, placed there by the Children of the Confederacy in 1959.

The plaque bears the “Children of the Confederacy Creed,” which states in part: “We, therefore, pledge ourselves to preserve pure ideals; to honor our veterans; to study and teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is, that the war between the states was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery) and to always act in a manner that will reflect honor upon our noble and patriotic ancestors.”

Johnson questioned that interpretation of history in his letter.

“The secession documents of the State of Texas, whose legitimacy are not in question, flatly contradict the claim in the plaque that sustaining slavery was not an underlying cause of the Civil War,” he wrote.

Johnson also sent his letter to Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott condemned “racist and hate-filled violence” in a statement but said he opposes removing statues.

“If we do not learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it,” Abbott said. “Instead of trying to bury our past, we must learn from it and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Tearing down monuments won’t erase our nation’s past, and it doesn’t advance our nation’s future.”

(Courthouse News photos show The  Spirit of the Confederacy statue in Houston, and a plaque on its base.)

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