HMAAC Makes Decision to Accept Controversial “Spirit of The Confederacy” Statue
From the founding of this country until now, there is one thing that has remained constant – the “spirit” of racism is still alive and well.
History teaches us that the Civil War was the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil.
The Confederate army, which represented 11 states that seceded from the United States, formed the Confederate States of America, primarily because they did not want to abolish slavery.
The Confederacy suffered an embarrassing loss to the Union army; but in spite of that end result, Confederate sympathizers have continued to promote the legacy of the Confederacy.
In cities all across the country, confederate statues are being removed by lawmakers, defaced, and even taken down by protestors, in what has become a nationwide rejection of the principles these individuals and symbols have stood for.
Here in Houston, however, Mayor Sylvester Turner recently announced a plan to do just the opposite relative to two confederate statues (Dick Dowling and Spirit of The Confederacy), which are currently located in two City of Houston parks.
Instead of following the trend in the country of removing those two statues and completely discarding the symbols representing the confederacy, Mayor Turner announced that the City would take a different approach by relocating them to two separate locations. The Dick Dowling statue is expected to be moved to a permanent display at the Sabine Pass Battleground State Historic Site in Port Arthur, TX. The move of the Spirit of The Confederacy statue, however, has raised the eyebrows of several African Americans in the Greater Houston area, because of the location that was chosen – the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC).
This comes as a shock to many in the community, and serves as an interesting turn of events, considering that back in 2017, the City of Houston voted to completely rename Dowling Street to Emancipation Avenue. Ironically, that street renaming took place on Juneteenth of that same year, coinciding with the relaunch of Emancipation Park, which is also located along that street.
Fast forward to 2020, and these two confederate statues will not only be removed from the two City parks by June 19th, in commemoration of the Juneteenth holiday, but the Spirit of The Confederacy statue is slated to be placed at HMAAC on Juneteenth, or sometime after.
Historically, the Juneteenth holiday memorializes the day that people of African descent in Texas learned from Union General Gordon Granger that the Emancipation Proclamation had granted them freedom from slavery.
Several local community leaders and critics on social media, have chastised the decision, with some going so far as questioning the mentality of all involved and the motives behind the move.
Dr. James Douglas, president of the Houston branch of the NAACP, issued a strongly-positioned statement about the decision on the organization’s letterhead, which read:
“My heart dropped when I learned that a statue celebrating all the soldiers who fought for the Confederate Army would be moved from the Sam Houston Park to the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC). This is a statue that was erected in 1908 by the Robert E. Lee Chapter #186 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. This statue was erected for the purpose of honoring those who fought to keep my forefathers in slavery. In fact, it is inscribed with the following language ‘to all heroes of the South who fought for the principles of states’ rights. The states’ rights they fought to defend were the rights of each of the states to decide for themselves to maintain the system of enslaving African American people. I know some believe we should never ever forget that slavery existed, and I am one of those. I also know that some believe that these statues should be in museums, I’m not sure that I agree with that point of view. What I do believe is that a history of the Civil War should be captured in a museum, but not in the form of statues. Statues are erected for the purpose of ‘honoring’ people and events. I don’t believe that a statue honoring individuals that fought to continue the enslavement of my people and destroy this nation of ours should exist anywhere on the face of the earth. Do you actually believe that someone would suggest putting a statue honoring all of the heroes who fought with Hitler in the Holocaust Museum? This is a rhetorical question; but the answer is absolutely ‘NO.’ Let’s recognize the civil war; but not honor the traitors who made it necessary. At a time when it appears that the thought of equality for all and reformation of our law enforcement institutions are at the forefront of our minds, I find it hard to believe that the City of Houston and the Houston Museum of African American Culture would even consider bestowing such an honor on individuals who created treasonous acts against this nation almost 160 years ago.”
In a joint statement issued by Dr. Reagan Flowers (Chief Knowledge Officer for Education Consulting Services and District IV Trustee for Houston Community College), and Carroll G. Robinson (former Houston City Council Member and Chairman of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats), they both questioned and condemned the decision to move the statues as well, stating the following:
“What in Heaven’s Name Is Happening In Houston? How did we come to this place that anyone would believe that the right place to house and protect confederate monuments and history would be the African American Museum in our city? What would make any foundation in our city think that paying to protect confederate monuments and history was a good idea, when the issue over reparations has not been resolved, and the struggle for racial justice, equity, and equality in our city is still in need of more philanthropic support? How in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and on the eve of Juneteenth is putting confederate monuments in the African American Museum a good idea? What we need funding for is preserving Houston’s Black History and helping Black people in Houston who are living below the poverty level, suffering from environmental injustice in their neighborhoods which, in far too many instances, are also food deserts. There is a further need for more funding to address race base health disparities in our city, which is why we don’t understand why this is happening in our city. While we believe that it is essential to know and learn from the history of those who sought to suppress the emancipation of African Americans through the Confederacy, there are better ways to achieve this aim rather than through perpetuation of symbols that were used to lionize the oppressor. Houston Endowment’s contribution is better aimed at funding an exhibit at HMAAC that explores in a broader context the full story of the Confederacy, and the impact it rendered on Blacks in the South.”
Bishop James Dixon II, who serves as the pastor of the Community of Faith Church and as second Vice President for the Houston NAACP branch, does not agree with what he calls “Dr. Douglas’ personal opinion”, going on the record as saying that “Jesus died on the cross” and “we still have that cross we display…because it’s a reminder of the tragedy at Calvary.”
“If we keep crosses up to remind us of that tragedy,” Bishop Dixon continued, “why not have images that remind us of the tragedy of slavery that shall not be forgotten but also moving forward brighter day?”
Back in 2017, Mayor Turner appointed a task force of historians, community leaders, and department directors to review the City of Houston’s inventory of items related to the confederacy and recommend appropriate action. That task force recommended that the statues be removed from City’s public property, but not be destroyed. After the task force submitted their findings, the City began working on a plan with partner organizations and funders to identify new locations to place the statues permanently.
“While we have been working on a plan for some time, I have decided to move forward now considering the events of the past several weeks,” said Mayor Turner. “Our plan for relocating confederate statues from public parks to locations more relevant to modern times preserves history and provides an opportunity for our city to heal.”
Understanding the mission of HMAAC is important to point out, because it could explain the reason behind why the museum’s leadership would make the decision to accept one of the two statues to become a permanent part of their museum.
On their website, HMAAC states their mission is “to collect, conserve, explore, interpret, and exhibit the material and intellectual culture of Africans and African Americans in Houston, the state of Texas, the southwest and the African Diaspora for current and future generations. In fulfilling its mission, HMAAC seeks to invite and engage visitors of every race and background and to inspire children of all ages through discovery-driven learning. HMAAC is to be a museum for all people. While our focus is the African American experience, our story informs and includes not only people of color, but people of all colors. As a result, the stories and exhibitions that HMAAC will bring to Texas are about the indisputable fact that while our experience is a unique one, it has been impacted by and has impacted numerous races, genders and ethnicities.”
Reading a mission statement on a website is one thing, but hearing it directly from the horse’s mouth is another, which is why the Forward Times spoke directly with HMAAC CEO Emeritus John Guess to get more clarity behind the decision.
The Forward Times wanted to know why, during this current climate, they would want to accept a statue that many people deem as a symbol of hate and racism.
According to Guess, he got a call from the Mayor’s office to inquire if HMAAC was open to accepting the statue, and he said that they absolutely would because it fit in with the focus that they have on having difficult conversations surrounding race and other tough issues.
“We don’t believe that if you are a witness to a crime, you should destroy the evidence,” said Guess. “I understand that these are not just symbols, but at HMAAC, we have been focused on a theme, ‘Lest We Forget’, where we have been having difficult conversations and tackling tough issues. If we don’t address and talk about the history of racism, we are destined to repeat it. It will hold us back if we choose to forget it.”
Guess states that he brought the issue to the full board last year, and after a lot of vigorous conversations and concerns, they agreed that this would be the right move for the museum.
“I did not want a statue of an individual,” said Guess. “I didn’t want Dick Dowling. I wanted the Spirit of the Confederacy, because it represented an ideology that not only existed then, but still exists now. This is bigger than a statue. This is a part of a continued conversation on race and racism that has plagued this country since inception.”
According to Guess, if you go to the Holocaust Museum, they have disturbed images that reminds everyone, including people of Jewish descent, about the horrific events that happened to Jewish people. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture also carries countless historical images and symbols in its museum that reminds the world what people of African descent in this country have endured. There are also other civil rights memorials and historical sites that highlight the tragedies that many Blacks have endured.
“I am not mad at anyone who is angry about this. I totally understand the anger by so many of us. We are in pain about what has happened to us as a people, and we want to get rid of these symbols and destroy them,” said Guess. “We, at HMAAC, want to go further than that. We want to talk about where we go in the future and we want the next generation to never forget what happened to us. We want to have these discussions, because racism is real.”
Guess also points to the number of hard-hitting exhibits, lectures and difficult subject matter conversations that HMAAC has hosted, as evidence that the decision to add the statue there will help African Americans heal and eventually strip these symbols of hate of their power.
“We have always taken the bold stance on issues, and we entertain having those difficult conversations,” said Guess. “We have taken on issues such as why did 53% of White women vote for Donald Trump, the Abolitionists movement, segregation, Sandra Bland, and have held many more difficult conversations and hosted several different hard-hitting exhibitions. We are a museum, and we want to bring about healing to our community, so that these symbols of hate don’t have the same power that they once possessed.”
During an exhibition that HMAAC held from November 2018 to February 2019, entitled The Burning House, HMAAC displayed an ice sculpture of a White man melting to show that the power of White supremacy is diminishing on Black people. The exhibit was part of a bigger discussion centered on a historic conversation between colleagues and activists Harry Belafonte and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during which King expressed his fears, saying: “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”
Guess wants to have more serious discussions like this around racism and White supremacy.
“White people are afraid of us stripping this symbol of its power,” said Guess. “Unfortunately, many of us, as Black people, are still subject to its power. We are going to own this statue and teach from it. This will NOT overshadow our museum. It won’t be in a prominent place in the museum. We have a lot of support from people here in Houston and all across the country, but we want many of the people who have never come to the museum, to start coming and start supporting us as we tackle these tough and difficult issues that our country is facing.”
According to Guess, the Houston Endowment is funding the move of the statue, and will also be providing a new security gate, and supporting the “Lest We Forget” series of programming to have a continued discussion on racism, as well as a host of other programming and lectures hosted by HMAAC.