The Lost Cause of the South (Mall)

In March of 2018, as the sun rose to herald the arrival of spring, UT students awoke to discover that vandals had defaced the Littlefield Fountain. To the left of the Columbia statue, a scrawl of spray paint read: “THIS IS THE BLOOD OF SURVIVORS UT IGNORES.” This declaration, made in reference to International Women’s Day, was punctuated with a hammer and sickle. The choice of the Littlefield Fountain as the canvas for their message was particularly poignant, as not only is its namesake Confederate officer George Littlefield, but it also stands as a product of the Lost Cause historiography once so pervasive throughout the South — one of many anachronisms that dot (and sully) UT’s campus. To imagine UT, a school once deeply enmeshed in the neo-Confederate politics of the early 20th century, as an environment conducive to leftist discourse is fascinating. As this institution grows more diverse, the discussion of UT’s white supremacist roots becomes increasingly valuable. 

At its establishment in 1883, UT Austin was situated on the academic frontier. While the surrender of the Confederacy was nearing its two-decade anniversary, it would be misleading to say that the Civil War had resolutely ended. Texas had only recently been relieved of the heavy-handed supervision of Reconstruction; the ink on its postwar constitution had scarcely dried. The Democratic Party (not to be confused with today’s Democratic Party), unmuzzled by the federal withdrawal from Texas, schemed its reconquest of Texas politics, employing racial violence to scare newly-enfranchised African Americans away from the polls and secure its ideological monopoly in local politics. 

Freed from the imagined yoke of the “Yankee oppressors,” and undoubtedly touched by the sense of humiliation pervading the South, Texan intellectuals — in line with the rest of the Southern intelligentsia — sought redemption using the power of the pen. Literary circles in the South committed themselves to reframing the Civil War as a valiant struggle against Northern oppression. As Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote in his memoir: federal troops fought “with a ferocity that disregarded all the laws of civilized warfare”, exploiting their superior industrial capacity to subjugate the South and her genteel people. Notably absent from this retelling of the war is any mention of slavery. For, in their eyes, the “peculiar institution” — an antebellum euphemism for slavery — was just that: a trivial quirk (as opposed to an inextricable foundation) of the Southern lifestyle. As this interpretation of the Civil War is centered around a perceived “loss” against a tyrannical power, historians have dubbed it the Lost Cause” doctrine.

The University of Texas, as the “first-class institution” envisioned by the same state constitution that enforced racist poll taxes and school segregation, came into being as a citadel in this intellectual theater of the Civil War. Indeed, Leslie Waggener, professor of history, first (interim) president of the University, and namesake of Waggener Hall, was a staunch defender of “Lost Cause” ideology, having served in the Confederate Army as a young man. Similarly, George Littlefield, the aforementioned Confederate officer and namesake of the Littlefield Fountain, served as a prominent regent of the University. In the closing years of his life, Littlefield exercised his financial leverage to ensure the University’s Department of History enshrined Southern biases into its curriculum. 

Undoubtedly, Littlefield’s most enduring legacy is something the University is still wrangling with: the South Mall. In 1919, driven by an interest to beautify the sparse tract of land surrounding the Main Building, Littlefield proposed the erection of a grand monument celebrating UT’s existence as a Southern institution (When Littlefield spoke of UT, he often said “University of Texas”, implying that the school’s Texan identity superseded its academic identity). He contracted the project out to Pompeo Coppini, a renowned Italian-American architect, and imparted his vision to him: a vaulting arch lined by Confederate figures. Coppini demurred, noting that a fountain might be more attainable with the University’s budget and that a principally Confederate gateway might age poorly, as Southern sympathy would likely wane among future generations. Coppini indicated that it might be better to honor the troops returning from the Western Front, introducing a compromise plan: a fountain with Columbia — the personification of America — as its centerpiece, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis at her breast, drawing a parallel between Wilson’s struggle for justice in Europe and Davis’s valiant defense of “liberty” in the South. Statues of numerous Confederate figures would also line the area surrounding the gateway. 

Benjamin Brown photo

Rendering of the Littlefield Fountain’s original design. Picture courtesy of Jimni Car’s UT History Corner

If one were to glance at the current Littlefield Fountain, they would correctly conclude that this is not what came to fruition. Administrative bickering, budget restraints, and a host of other issues whittled the design down to what stands today, and the Confederate statues intended to line the perimeter of the “Littlefield Gateway” were placed along the walkways of the South Mall. The Wilson and Davis statues were instead erected outside the Main Building. As the fountain was essentially reduced to a World War I memorial, a nearby inscription illuminated its original symbolic purpose:

To the men and women of the Confederacy, who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states’ rights be maintained and who, not dismayed by defeat nor discouraged by misrule, builded [sic] from the ruins of a devastating war a greater South and to the men and women of the nation who gave of their possessions and of their lives [so] that free government be made secure to the peoples of the earth this memorial is dedicated.

Littlefield’s refusal to heed Coppini’s warning about Confederate monumentation would cause substantive headaches for 21st-century administrators. In 2015, acting on a student government resolution, the administration of Gregory Fenves removed the statues of Wilson and Davis from the plaza outside the Tower. Curiously, Fenves had Wilson removed purely “to preserve the symmetry” of the Mall, and intends to relocate his statue to an alternate exterior location. This ignores Wilson’s abominable racism, evidenced by his resegregation of the federal government and fondness for The Birth of a Nation — a film that celebrates the Ku Klux Klan. 

It might be more sensible for the University to place the Wilson statue in an exhibit that recontextualizes his deplorable character, just as the Davis statue was placed in the Briscoe Center for American History. Indeed, I believe this is what University administrators should arrange for all problematic status on campus. It nullifies the objection that we are “erasing history;” by relocating Confederate icons to museums and other academic institutions, we can reflect upon their historical significance without exalting them. 

In 2016, perhaps emboldened by their initial success in “sanitizing” the South Mall, the Fenves administration proceeded to remove the Confederate inscription near the Littlefield Fountain. The following year, when neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, the University finally garnered the confidence to tackle a major point of contention among the student body: the statues along the South Mall, which stood as vestiges of a political era manifestly rooted in the “Lost Cause” doctrine celebrated by the neo-Confederates of the “Unite the Right” rally. The likenesses of Confederates and segregationists were wheeled away, leaving nothing but the pedestals on which they stood. 

Today, the South Mall exists in a state of thematic limbo; the Littlefield Fountain now stands as a fairly unobjectionable World War I monument, but the slabs of the South Mall statues, which bear the names of the figures they supported, remain. The statue of James Hogg, an early Texas governor instrumental in bringing Jim Crow laws to the Lone Star State, is slated to be re-erected on the grounds of his historical significance and the political power his family still wields. The Wilson statue, as mentioned before, is also in the process of being re-erected, which I find baffling. No rationale has been offered by Fenves for this decision, so I can only imagine it is grounded either in ignorance, fear of backlash, or the fact that Wilson’s racism is regarded as a footnote when weighed against his role as a wartime president.

James Hogg and Woodrow Wilson are far from the only segregationists honored on campus. RLM Hall is named after Robert Lee Moore, an accomplished mathematician who also refused to assign grades above C’s to African-Americans. TS Painter Hall is named after Theophilus Painter, a decorated zoologist who, as president of the University, fought to prevent the Texas School of Law from admitting its first African-American student. The litany of condemnable figures goes on. While UT is making a reasonably concerted effort to rectify the deplorable architecture of the South Mall, its response to problematic imagery and nomenclature elsewhere on campus has been lackluster. What conclusions are we meant to draw when neo-Confederate symbols are dismantled, but segregationists are not? What message does this institution send to minority students when it commemorates the figures committed to their subjugation? 

Categories: Campus

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