Episode 22: Lest We Forget
Hightower In 1942 my grandfather joined the Army Air Corps. He was shipped off to San Antonio for his preflight training but before he left he married my grandmother.
Now as you might imagine the separation and the uncertainty of the Second World War was hard on them both. During my grandfather’s first leave my grandmother took the train down from Fort Worth to see him. Unfortunately she forgot to bring her marriage license. As a result the Saint Anthony Hotel refused to give her a room.
As she liked to tell us grandkids:
Grandmother “They thought I was a hooker!”
Hightower In cities with large military bases hotels would often require women to show proof that they were married so as to keep prostitution out of their establishments. In its defense, the Saint Anthony Hotel had a reputation to maintain. It was San Antonio’s first luxury hotel and by the 1940s it was where presidents and celebrities sought accommodations when visiting the Alamo City. The 11-story brick building faced Travis Park - a landscaped public square within the city’s busting downtown.
Although my grandparents weren’t able to hook up on THAT particular weekend, they eventually did. They would go on to have two kids, one of whom was my father. He in turn had me and some sixty years after my grandparents’ failed tryst I started working at an office in San Antonio that was just a few blocks away from the Saint Anthony Hotel. When the weather was nice I would sometimes eat my lunch in Travis Park. As I sat in the shade of the hotel I’d think of my grandmother and smile.
But the Saint Anthony was not the only thing casting a shadow over Travis Park. Sitting in the middle of the square was a 30-foot-tall monument that was dedicated - not to World War II veterans like my grandfather - but to soldiers who died fighting against the United States.
You see, Travis Park was home to San Antonio’s CONFEDERATE memorial.
That’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the twenty-second episode of The Works; a podcast about the world we build around us.
I’m Brantley Hightower.
For years, my personal relationship to this monument was one of benign indifference. As Confederate memorials go, the one in Travis Park seemed pretty innocuous. It consisted of a bronze statue of a soldier standing on top of a tall granite base. There were no inscriptions glorifying the lost cause or the virtue of fighting to defend state rights. The single line “Lest We Forget” was the only thing carved into the shaft of the monument.
In my day-to-day life the Civil War was something far off in our nation’s past. It was the subject of history books and PBS documentaries. Of course that belief was an artifact of my particular background. You see I am a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male. The Civil War was started by people who looked like me in order to preserve a social and economic order that favored people who looked like me. I also grew up in a place and time where people who looked like me told a version of the Civil War story that wasn’t entirely true.
For example when I was in school I remember being told:
Southern Teacher Well, Texas didn’t really have all THAT many slaves…
Hightower Yeah, that’s not really true. As a percentage of overall population, in 1860 about 30 percent of Texans were OWNED by other Texans. That’s the same percentage as in Virginia. By the start of the Civil War there were around 250,000 slaves in Texas.
Here’s something else I was told:
Southern Teacher Of course the main reason Texas joined the Confederacy was out of solidary with the other southern states…
Hightower In 1861 the Texas delegates who voted to join the Confederacy released a document. Its sole purpose was to explain why they were seceding. This “Declaration of Causes” referenced “negro slavery” twenty-one times and argued explicitly for the preservation and the supremacy of the “white race”.
Texas Legislator In view of these and many other facts, it is meet that our own views should be distinctly proclaimed. We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
Hightower The reality is Texas was a slave state and those who fought on the side of the Confederacy committed high treason against the United States in order to preserve the institution of slavery.
Period. Full stop.
Although that might not be chiseled into the granite of the Confederate memorial in Travis Park, it commemorates that as well.
Or at least it did.
News Anchor Working through the night there’s still much left to be done as the city removes the Confederate Memorial in Travis Park. By midnight the Confederate soldier and two canons were on their way out but the large base remains…
Hightower On August 31, 2017 the San Antonio City Council voted to remove the Confederate memorial in Travis Park. By the next day, the statue had been dismantled.
Any ambivalence I might have felt about the removal of Confederate memorials evaporated earlier that month when a group of neo-Nazis and white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia. Their stated reason for being there was to protest the removal of Confederate memorial.
As a general rule if Nazis are in favor of something it probably means you shouldn’t be. Likewise when white nationalists believe a statue should be preserved, that’s actually a pretty strong argument for its removal.
I will never fully comprehend what it is like to be an African American and walk in the shadow of one of these monuments. However, as an architect I understand how powerful the built environment can be. I understand how the existence of a memorial like the one in Travis Park can fundamentally transform the meaning of a public space.
There was a time when those who crafted the built environment thought it was acceptable to marginalize their fellow citizens by building monuments to those who fought to deny them their humanity. But that time had past. It was time to move on – PAST time, in fact. It was time to take down the Confederate monument in Travis Park and I’m glad my city decided to do so.
Of course there’s the counter-argument that taking down Confederate memorials like the one in Travis Park means we’re erasing our history. I don’t buy it. History is much stronger than that. We didn’t somehow forget about World War Two when allied forces destroyed monuments built by the Nazis.
If anything destroying these symbols was an important first step for Germany to move past a particularly dark chapter of its history. The goal wasn’t to erase that history; it was simply to stop glorifying Nazis. It’s way past time for us to stop glorifying Confederates.
It turns out history is pretty hard to erase. But the stories we tell ourselves about that history can be fictionalized. Motivations can be revised. Details can be left out.
For example at the turn of the twentieth century there was a conscious effort to “rebrand” the Civil War as a noble dispute over things like “states rights” and “honor” rather than a debased economic dispute over human bondage. That alternate history was told in books and in movies. It was told with monuments in public parks and statues on courthouse squares. It was told to students in classrooms.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of these stories – at least for the white southerners who told them. They were seductive. They made those who lived in the south feel better about their heritage. The only problem with these stories is they weren’t true.
I have no way of knowing what my grandfather would have thought of all of this – he died in 2012. But in a way it doesn’t matter. His generation went to war to defeat an evil ideology and make the world a better place. Now it’s my generation’s turn to try and do the same. Members of the armed forces like my grandfather took a stand against Nazis in the battlefield of Europe. If architects like me have to take a stand against neo-Nazis in our city parks, well, then so be it.
It’s every generation’s job to transcend its past. And so as our society progresses we do so with the knowledge that moving beyond our history is not the same as erasing it.
This is something we must always remember — lest we forget.
Hightower An earlier version of this story first appeared in the November / December 2017 edition of Texas Architect magazine. Thanks to Aaron Seward who edited that essay and also to “Artist GiGi” and “Superstar 818” who provided some of the voice work for the episode.
The music today was by Chris Zabriskie, Glenn Miller, Jay Ungar and Billie Holiday. The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at Hi dot Works.
Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.