AUSTIN — Outside Rep. Eric Johnson’s office in the state Capitol is a plaque that claims secession was not an act of rebellion and the Civil War was not fought to sustain slavery.
It was installed in 1959, when his parents were growing up in the West Dallas housing projects.
“My grandparents were raising their family,” said Johnson, D-Dallas. “Their own state government, whom they paid taxes to, like everybody else, was celebrating those who 100 years before were willing to take up arms to keep us slaves.”
Johnson is one of several black lawmakers who have pleaded with Texas for years to rethink its nods to the Confederacy. This Friday, after repeatedly calling for the removal of the plaque, he’ll make his case to Gov. Greg Abbott.
Discussion of the plaque’s future, though, raises questions about how it came to be on the wall just outside Johnson’s office in the first place. How and why was it erected? Who paid for it? What would it take for it to be removed? Whatever Abbott decides about the plaque’s future, someone will be left unhappy.
“There’s lots of things that offend me, and I just look the other way,” Eva Long, president of the Texas division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, told The Dallas Morning News during an interview at her home. What would she say to Johnson and others offended by the plaque?
“Just don’t look at it.”
The discussion over statues, monuments and other nods to the so-called Lost Cause has raged for years in Texas, but it picked up significant steam after this summer’s deadly racial clashes in Charlottesville, Va., where white supremacists who gathered to rally against the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee clashed with counterprotesters.
After the hit-and-run death of protester Heather Heyer that weekend, Johnson asked the state to remove the Children of the Confederacy Creed plaque inside the Capitol “immediately.”
The Children of the Confederacy, a group of Texans age 18 or younger with ancestors who fought for the South, sponsored the plaque’s installation decades after the Capitol’s large Confederate monuments were erected.
It was placed in the hallway behind the Capitol rotunda room and features what was the group’s creed until just a few years ago, a statement that pledges “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).”
The plaque did not mark a historical event, nor was it installed to honor a specific Confederate soldier or leader, according to three members who were officers of the children’s group in 1959. The centennial of the Civil War was just a few years away, and the last remaining Confederate veterans were dead or dying, but those notable issues didn’t spur the group to put up the plaque.
“There’s no particular significance to the year,” said Brien Varnado, who was president of the Children of the Confederacy in 1959, roughly five years into the civil rights movement when black Americans were fighting against segregation, racism and discrimination. “It was a good thing to do at the time.
“And it was consistent with the creed and values of the organization.”
The Children of the Confederacy is an auxiliary of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a national group headquartered in Richmond, Va. The children’s group has chapters across the nation and is still active in Texas.
The group’s former creed directly conflicted with Texas’ reasons for seceding from the Union, which included “the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery.”
“The crisis upon us involves not only the right of self government, but the maintenance of a great principle in the law of nations — the immemorial recognition of the institution of slavery,” Oran M. Roberts, president of the Secession Convention of Texas, said on the first day of its meeting.
The plaque is fashioned out of bronze, and was erected less than two years after Children of the Confederacy groups from across the nation raised $25,000 to pay for bronze doors at the UDC’s headquarters.
Jim Cullar, who was 16 years old when he served as northeast chairman for Dallas and Cameron counties, doesn’t remember much about his involvement. His mother was “the shaker and mover in that situation,” he said. But he does recall the nation was marking what it thought was the death of the last Confederate veteran, a soldier whose service in Hood’s Texas Brigade was questioned as a probable fabrication.
The Children of the Confederacy’s 1959 Convention and Camp pamphlet also mentioned this, with Varnado reminding the group “the last remnant of a nation of eight millions is ourselves.”
The plaque cost $201 (about $1,675 in today’s money), and was largely paid for by members of Confederate groups. During its dedication, a representative from Gov. Price Daniel’s office thanked the children “for the lasting and worthwhile gift to the state of Texas.”
In his resolution dedicating the plaque, Travis County Democrat Obie Jones mentioned how Texas “proudly entered” the Confederacy and “contributed significantly to the cause of that gallant nation through the period of the War for Southern Independence.”
The process to remove the plaque is unclear, according to State Preservation Board spokesman Chris Currens. Would lawmakers have to act? Could the board vote for its removal?
“We’re not certain what action will be necessary, and until our board meeting, it’s a policy decision that is theirs to make,” Currens said. Only the governor can call a meeting of the board, which oversees many of the monuments and buildings on the Capitol grounds.
This week, Johnson filed a formal request with the state to remove it. He said the preservation board should honor his request and immediately take down the plaque.
“It’s historically inaccurate,” Johnson said simply. Several other lawmakers, including the Republican speaker of the House, Joe Straus, have also called for its removal.
Long said the plaque should stay.
She said lawmakers would need to vote to remove it, an unlikely outcome in the Republican-dominated Legislature. Long, who said she speaks only for herself and not the United Daughters of the Confederacy as a whole, worries lawmakers will begin talking about removing other Confederate monuments at the Capitol and around the state.
Her division is compiling a book of every marker and monument to the Confederacy in Texas “for our own purpose, to defend them.”
“The Capitol was built by granite given to them by three Confederate veterans,” she said. “So they need to tear down the Capitol if they want to get real technical about it.
“What they’re doing is erasing Texas history.”
When asked about the accuracy of the plaque’s creed, Long said, “The South was prospering, whether slavery had a lot to do with that or not.”
“The North wanted it. They wanted to take away our rights, individual states’ rights, because they wanted a bigger share of the pie. And I believe that’s why [the war] started.”
A handful of other historical markers have been removed from the Capitol in recent years. A fountain and bicentennial star were taken down when the building and grounds were remodeled, Currens said.
Court precedents could also apply here, including one from 2000 when Gov. George W. Bush removed two Confederate plaques that dedicated the Texas Supreme Court building to Confederate soldiers. The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued the state, but the courts sided with the governor.
That decision, however, applied only to “inscriptions related to the memorial purpose” of a building and may not apply to the plaque because it does not dedicate the Capitol.
A second case, dating back more than 100 years, might also offer some guidance.
In 1913, the Daughters sued Texas after state officials tried to kick them out of a room lawmakers had set aside for use as a meeting place and museum. The Texas Supreme Court sided with the Confederate group, saying only the Legislature could undo the resolution handing over the room to its members.
Johnson disagreed that the Legislature would need to get involved and said he’s looking forward to his discussion with Abbott this week.
“When you think about it, that plaque is like the original fake news,” he said. “Now folks are fighting to keep on the walls of the Capitol words that were never true to begin with.”