HOUSTON – A Houston museum dedicated to conserving African American culture said Tuesday that its decision to display a more than 100-year-old Confederate statue is about providing Black Americans with a way to confront slavery’s painful legacy and include their lived experiences in the conversation.
The towering bronze statue, called “Spirit of The Confederacy,” was removed from a downtown Houston park in June following a recommendation more than two years earlier by a task force established by Mayor Sylvester Turner.
The statue, which had been in storage since its removal, arrived at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on Monday and was viewed by reporters with The Associated Press on Tuesday in an exclusive tour.
“There is a need for our folks to heal. The way you get rid of the pain is to not bury it as if it had never existed, but to confront it and engage with it," said John Guess Jr., the museum’s CEO emeritus. "This allows our community to do this.”
The 12-foot statue depicts a winged male figure holding palm tree foliage and a sword. An inscription on a plaque below the statue reads: “To all heroes of the South who fought for the principles of states rights.”
While Confederate sympathizers argue that the Civil War was fought to establish states' rights, historians say slavery was the root cause of the war.
“We now have a chance to dialogue with that history and say something about it. Know this was really about slavery,” Guess said. “And we have an image that our community can consistently speak to, especially during times like now when the whole concept of white supremacy has so much sway in the White House. ”
The statue was erected in 1908 by the Robert E. Lee Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
It was removed during nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man whose death at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer became a worldwide symbol in demonstrations calling for police reform and an end to racial injustice.
During these protests, many Confederate symbols and monuments were damaged or brought down by demonstrators and removed by local authorities.
Protesters also decried monuments to slave traders and imperialists, including Christopher Columbus, Cecil Rhodes and Belgium’s King Leopold II.
Guess said he believes the museum is the first African American institution in the country to house a Confederate monument. Other Confederate statues have been removed from public view and housed at museums or other facilities. In 2015, the University of Texas in Austin removed a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis from the school’s main mall area and later placed it in a history center on campus.
The “Spirit of The Confederacy” statue will be displayed in a courtyard. New fencing has been built around the statue so it cannot be seen from the street. People will be able to view it online or make an appointment to see it from behind a window. Museum officials say people will be able to see the statue up close from the courtyard at a later date. The statue sits facing a collection of eye sculptures by Bert Long Jr., a Black Houston artist.
“The eyes of Black America are staring at this statue, at this philosophy. We are having a standoff,” Guess said.
The museum’s decision to display the statue was criticized in June by James Douglas, the president of the Houston chapter of the NAACP, who said the history of the Civil War should be discussed in museums but not in the form of statues.
“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,” Douglas said at the time.
In an email on Tuesday, the NAACP’s Houston chapter said that after meetings on the issue, it supports “the removal and relocation of the Confederate monument to a place of historical rather than sovereign context.”
Guess said he understands Douglas’ concerns.
“We understand the pain these monuments bring to people ... We don’t get past that pain and get to healing without at times confronting them,” Guess said.
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