In 1942, my grandfather joined the Army Air Corps and was sent to San Antonio for his preflight training. He was newly married, and during one of his leaves, his young bride took the train down from Fort Worth to visit him. Unfortunately, she neglected to bring her marriage license, and as a result, the Saint Anthony Hotel refused to give her a room.
As she liked to tell us grandkids, “They thought I was a hooker!”
In the hotel’s defense, it had a reputation to maintain. The Saint Anthony 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 building faced Travis Park, a verdant public square within the city’s bustling downtown.
Sixty years after my grandparents’ failed tryst, I started working at Lake|Flato, whose office sits just a few blocks west of Travis Park. When I walked through it, I would sometimes look up at the Saint Anthony, think of my grandmother, and smile. But the hotel was not the only structure casting a shadow over the park. Sitting at its center was a 30-ft-tall memorial that was dedicated — not to World War II veterans like my grandfather — but to soldiers who died fighting against the United States during the Civil War.
For years, my personal relationship to this monument was one of benign indifference. As Confederate monuments go, the one in Travis Park was fairly innocuous. It consisted of a bronze statue of a soldier standing, right arm raised, atop a slender granite base. There were no inscriptions glorifying the “Lost Cause” or the righteousness of defending state rights: a simple “Lest We Forget” was carved into the shaft of the monument, and on its base was engraved “Our Civil War Dead.”
As far as I was concerned, the Civil War was something far off in our nation’s past. Of course that feeling was an artifact of my particular background. I am a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male. The Civil War was started by people who looked like me 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 was not entirely factual. I remember learning Texas “didn’t have that many slaves.” In fact, as a percentage of overall population, about 30 percent of Texans were slaves in 1860 — the same percent as in Virginia. I was told Texas joined the Confederacy not because of slavery but “out of solidary with the South.” In fact, the Declaration of Causes that accompanied Texas’ secession referenced “negro slavery” 21 times and argued explicitly for its preservation and the supremacy of the “white race.”
The fact of the matter is this: Texas was a slave state that seceded from the Union and fought against it in order to preserve human bondage. Although that might not be chiseled into the granite, the memorial in Travis Park commemorated that, too.
On August 31, the San Antonio City Council voted to remove the Confederate memorial from Travis Park. By the following morning, the statue had been dismantled and trucked away. A few weeks earlier the statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders were removed from the campus of The University of Texas at Austin. In September, another statue of Lee was removed from a park in Dallas. Other communities across the South are considering similar actions.
Any ambivalence I might have felt about the removal of these memorials evaporated in mid-August when a group of white nationalists and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. I make it a general policy to review any opinion I have when I discover it is shared by Nazis. That is usually a good indication that I am on the wrong side of that particular argument.
As an architect, I understand how powerful the built environment is. Even though I will never fully comprehend what it is like to be an African American and walk in the shadow of these monuments, I can appreciate how their existence changes the public spaces they inhabit in a way that undermines their civic role.
The removal of these Confederate memorials will not erase the history of the Civil War any more than the destruction of Nazi monuments in Germany have prevented people from remembering the Second World War. History is stronger than that. The only thing that is in danger of being expunged by the removal of monuments like the one in Travis Park is the undisputable proof that there was a time when we thought it was acceptable to celebrate those who fought to defend slavery and destroy our country.
The downside to removing the darker artifacts of our history is that it makes it easier to remember a rosier version of the past. When you walk into a county courthouse today, you do not see drinking fountains labeled “white only,” or arrows directing certain people to the “colored balcony.” And yet, there was a time when public buildings had segregation literally built into their walls. Over the years, the physical evidence of these injustices has been removed, and so today it is easy to forget that Jim Crow was once so perversely architectural.
And so, while I do not mourn the removal of memorials like the one in San Antonio, I do worry that someday my grandkids will walk through Travis Park and assume it was always just a quiet urban oasis. With no evidence to the contrary, I fear they will not realize there was once a time when those who crafted the built environment thought it was acceptable to disenfranchise their fellow citizens by building monuments to those who fought to deny them their humanity.
Moving past our history is not the same as erasing it. Seeing the evil behind you helps move you toward the light. These are things we must always remember — lest we forget.
Brantley Hightower, AIA, is founding partner of HiWorks in San Antonio and the author of “The Courthouses of Central Texas.”