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Texas Senate committee wades into debate over tributes to the Confederacy with focus on artwork

Paintings of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston and John H. Reagan, postmaster general of the Confederate States of America, all hang in the Senate and will be addressed.

AUSTIN — The ongoing debate over tributes to the Confederacy at the state Capitol has moved to the Texas Senate, where a special committee met for the first time Monday to discuss the artwork depicting Confederate leaders in the Senate chambers.

The Senate Chamber Review Committee, formed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick about a year ago, met for the first time Monday to hear invited testimony on the history and procedure of the placement of art in the Senate.

Paintings of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy; Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston; and John H. Reagan, who was the postmaster general of the Confederate States of America, all hang in the Senate and will be addressed by the special committee.

State Sen. Royce West of Dallas, who is one of the three Democrats on the committee, thanked Patrick for allowing him and Houston Sen. Borris Miles, who is also African American, to serve on the special committee. Miles also thanked Patrick but said it is unfortunate this subject has to be addressed in 2020.

“Some claim we cannot forget history by erasing monuments or artwork,” Miles said. “But should Sen. West have to give his speeches on the floor with a 10-foot painting of Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnson as this backdrop?”

The board heard from Dealey Herndon, who served as the first executive director of the State Preservation Board from 1991-1995. She helped lead the Texas Capitol preservation and extension project.

After West asked her whether or not the people who are depicted on Capitol grounds should be there in the first place, given the history of the Civil War, Herndon said she is very worried about where the country is headed if history is taken away.

She was in Dallas for her 49th wedding anniversary when the Robert E. Lee statue was removed from Lee Park in September 2017 after a 13-1 vote from Dallas City Council.

The removal of the statue was just one of the many monument removals across the country that resulted in protests and counter protests in 2017. Just one month prior to the removal in Dallas was the terror attack by a white nationalist, who sped his car into a group of counter protesters in Charlottesville, Va., where emotions ran high over the removal of a statue of Lee.

But Herndon told the committee she was going say something she’s never said publicly about the removal of the statue in Dallas: “We walked over and watched the removal and it really shook my heart that it was being removed, not for the reasons other protesters were saying,” she said. “But because I learned my deep appreciation about the African American journey from that statue from my mother.”

Herndon added, “You can learn from things that aren’t necessarily all pleasant. I’d hate to see us wipe out that lesson.”

West thanked Herndon and agreed that history should not be whitewashed, but argued that figures such as Davis and Lee should be placed in a museum.

“There’s some instances in history that obviously we don’t want to repeat, and we need to be reminded of that so we don’t repeat them in the future,” West said. “I’m not trying to just do away with history, but put it in its proper context, in the proper location.”

The second speaker, Ali James, Capitol curator and director of visitor services for the State Preservation Board, was asked by Miles if a plaque or memorial is a permanent fixture once it is placed in the Capitol.

“From my perspective, I think that nothing is permanent, certainly a monument would be much more difficult to remove as opposed to a painting,” James said.

James and Herndon said that if a decision is made to remove a portrait, effort needs to go into what will replace it in order to preserve the room. Herndon did note that it is rare to find exceptional artwork that is not already in the hands of collectors, which could make finding a replacement difficult.

But, Herndon said, the Senate ultimately controls the space, so if they can agree on a resolution to move, or remove, a portrait, the preservation board is unlikely to object.

Last year, the “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque was removed from the Capitol, an effort spearheaded by former state Rep. and current Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, who filed the building change request to the preservation board.

The controversial plaque, which was erected in 1959, stated that slavery was not the underlying cause of the Civil War.

Now, the Senate Chamber Review Committee is looking to address each artwork in the Senate.

Also on the committee is state Sen. Brandon Creighton, the Republican from Conroe who sponsored a bill aimed at making the altering or removal of historical monuments more difficult.

After hours of debate, the Senate passed the bill along party lines, though it sputtered in the Texas House and did not get a floor vote. Miles, a Democrat, proposed this special committee as an amendment to the bill, which Patrick said he would create regardless of whether it passed or failed.

Other Republicans on the committee are Sen. Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston and Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown. Republican Sen. Bryan Hughes of Mineola is chairman.

Sen. Beverly Powell from Burleson is the third Democrat on the board.

Schwertner, Campbell and Bettencourt did not attend the hearing.

CORRECTION, 4:15 p.m., Nov. 24, 2020: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect statement from state Sen. Royce West, who misspoke when he said that the Senate Chamber Review Committee was the first time that two African American senators served on the same committee. West served as the chairman for the Senate Committee on Jurisprudence in 2001, which included former Sen. Rodney Ellis, who also is African American.

Alex Briseno. Alex Briseño is covering politics in Austin for The Dallas Morning News. He was born in Seguin, Texas, and is a recent graduate from the University of Texas at Austin. During his time at UT, Alex interned at Sports Illustrated, freelanced for newspapers across the state and spent four years at the student newspaper, The Daily Texan.

alex.briseno@dallasnews.com @alex__briseno
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