87th LegislatureState HouseAlamo, Confederate Monuments Featured Prominently in Heated House Committee Hearing

From Mission Indians to Sons of the Confederacy, the hearing revealed the continued life of feuds as old as Texas itself.
April 27, 2021
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“I do feel a little bit like Liz Taylor’s fifth husband. I know what to do, I just don’t know how to make it interesting at this point,” quipped former General Land Office (GLO) Commissioner Jerry Patterson four hours deep into a Texas House committee hearing last week that drew testimony from the descendants of slaves, mission Indians, abolitionists, and Civil War soldiers alongside politicians and activists.

Generational feuds welled at the state capitol as the Culture, Recreation, and Tourism Committee of the Texas House took up an interconnected raft of bills touching on Confederate memorials and the Alamo. Though the proposals ranged from outright removal of the Confederate statues on capitol grounds to simply setting up an appeal process for decisions made by the Texas Historical Commission (THC), the natural gravity of the night’s debate pulled the conversation always back to not-quite dormant pages of Texas history. Testifiers tended to split into broad groups of defenders and critics of the state’s monuments but then fell under fainter shades of disagreement when it came to executing their plans.

Mission Indians and the Alamo

The only bill with no opposing testifiers was House Bill (HB) 1661 by state Rep. Leo Pacheco (D-San Antonio), which would grant official state recognition to the small, San Antonio-based Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan tribe.

“This bill is for the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, [which] was previously state-recognized via resolutions: House Resolution 787 and Senate Resolution 1038 in the 77th Session. However, it was later determined that only state-recognized tribes whose recognition was recorded in statute qualified for federal benefits,” explained Pacheco, himself a Tap Pilam tribal member as well as a descendant of Canary Islanders and Mission Indians.

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“Now, passage of this would make the tribe eligible for all programs, services, and other benefits provided to the state-recognized tribes in the United States.”

The Tap Pilam Coahuiltecans lived in the San Antonio missions, including the Alamo. The tribe is currently suing the City of San Antonio, the THC, the GLO, and Alamo Trust for a voice in the discussion on human remains protocols for bodies found in archaeological digs at the site.

“There was no accounting to those human remains,” said Raymond Hernandez, a Tap Pilam member recalling his grandfather, born in the 19th century, taking him to the missions around the city.

“People call them bones, but they’re our families.”

Hernandez said he has been personally involved in the “reclamation of over 200 human remains,” including a body inside the Alamo in 1995.

Ramon Vasquez, another member and frequent spokesman for the tribe, said that state recognition would give Tap Pilam the chance to consult on human remains associated with their people with state and city agencies, which could expedite the handling of inadvertent finds during digs.

Before the fate of the Alamo cenotaph was settled, the Tap Pilam had opposed the city’s plan to move the monument away from the remaining Alamo structure on the grounds that they, like the offspring of the siege defenders, considered it a funerary object akin to a headstone. The THC ultimately denied the City of San Antonio’s request to move the cenotaph.

Removing Monuments

Rep. Carl Sherman (D-Lancaster) laid out a bill that would carve a path to appeal THC decisions, though he never expressed disagreement with the cenotaph permit denial. Instead, Sherman pivoted to potentially offensive monuments and said that the THC has blocked citizens around the state hoping to see them taken down.

“The THC has refused many requests to remove, replace, or relocate specific statues and monuments. Additionally, there is no formal appeals process that allows for reconsideration,” Sherman said.

“HB 1644 would direct the THC to create that process.”

THC Executive Director Mark Wolfe testified neutrally on the bill to explain what costs would arise if it were to pass into law. According to Wolfe, the price tag on the bill comes mainly from court fees.

“We have about 17,000 markers. About 1,500 of those reference the Confederacy in some way… We very conservatively estimated perhaps one-half of one percent of our markers might be challenged in a given year. That would be 85 challenges. Assuming we could work out half of those, we would still have over 40 administrative hearings, which would be a little less than one per week,” Wolfe said, adding that legal counsel on the state’s dime would cost $150 per hour at around 18 hours per case.

“So $2,700 per case times 42 cases would be $113,400 per fiscal year just to cover the fees.”

Sherman’s bill quickly became a path to the removal of Confederate statues and the Alamo cenotaph in the eyes of both supporters and detractors who took the lectern to testify.

“We just feel like this particular bill is just kind of a back door way to skirt what the Texas Historical Commission has decided on, especially the Alamo Cenotaph,” said Brandon Burkhardt, president of This Is Texas Freedom Force (TITFF), a group that defends monuments by force of arms.

“The City of San Antonio could use something like this to skirt the will of the people… We think the process is fine the way it is, so therefore, we oppose it.”

Wielding firearms, members of TITFF have held vigils around the Alamo cenotaph, a Martin Luther King, Jr. statue in Houston, and other monuments. The group claimed credit for dispelling white nationalists from a rally around a statue of Sam Houston which they had taken up arms to defend against supposed left-wing vandals.

The group also testified against more overt proposals to remove monuments, namely a bill by Rep. Rafael Anchía (D-Dallas) to remove the Confederate statues from the capitol grounds and the Confederate portraits that hang inside the capitol. The bill would also rename the John H. Reagan building after a pair of little-known Texas abolitionists: Nathaniel Jackson and John Ferdinand Webber.

“I want to remove the monuments to the original cancel culture. The folks that wanted to cancel the United States, they wanted to cancel the Union, and they wanted to cancel black lives,” Anchía said as he introduced his bill.

“I really do believe these Confederate artifacts are a symbology of hate, racism, and oppression. They don’t glorify the soldiers. If they did, they’d glorify the Union soldiers.”

Anchía said that he would appreciate the statues if they respected all the Civil War dead and noted that Jefferson Davis, the one president of the Confederacy, was not a Texan.

Ramon Garza, San Antonio Outreach Director for TITFF, said Anchía’s proposal lacked nuance.

“Haven’t we forgotten that confederates also had a black battalion? There were black soldiers that fought on the Confederate side. Are they bad people, too? […] We even have Hispanics and Mexicans that fought on the Confederate side, also. Are we to condemn them as well?” Garza said.

“My family is Lipan Apache. If you want to talk about slavery, yes, there was slavery in Mexico, and they took them as slaves as well. But we don’t talk about that, do we?”

The Lipan Apache tribe, whose tangled history made them occasional allies of early Texians and enemies of mission Indians like the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecans, recently joined Tap Pilam in their legal fight against Alamo project leadership.

Notably, a professed descendant of one of Anchía’s proposed namesakes opposed the bill. Cindy Gaskill, a citizen who claims Jackson as her great-great-great-grandfather, suggested that the state build new monuments to abolitionists around the capitol instead of tearing old Confederate statues down.

“I’m very pleased someone is bringing recognition to the Jackson and Webber families for their contributions in freeing slaves. However, I am against HB 1186 because the bill aims to cancel the history, monuments, and art at the capitol building because the objects are related to the Confederacy,” she said.

“I would love to see monuments or memorials dedicated to both the Jackson or Webber families and other African-Americans in Texas to complement or contrast the existing works found on the capitol grounds.”

One supporter of the bill, Austin professor and member of the Texas Reconstruction Project Bryan Register, rebutted claims that removing the statues would be costly by suggesting that the state make an event out of it.

“It is suggested that taking down the monuments will cost money. It will not. You can do it as a fundraiser. There’s a lot of sledgehammers, and you can have people pay five dollars to swing one. Any red-blooded American patriot would be happy to do that,” Register said.

Chas Moore, an Austin activist with the Austin Justice Coalition, sided with Register in supporting the removal of monuments but took a softer tone on where to put them afterward.

“I disagree with the last speaker. We shouldn’t destroy any of this. I’m not for getting a sledgehammer and destroying it,” Moore said, referencing museums that have “all these amazing and gritty parts in there together” and suggesting that the statues be placed in a contextual learning environment.

“We’re missing one very key element, and it’s a human element to all of this. Imagine you come up to the capitol in the name of democracy to say your piece about whatever you want to talk about because that’s who we are as not only Americans, but Texans. And you’re always reminded by some statue or some monument that we’re idolizing people who did not want you to be part of this democratic process… I agree, these statues and these monuments themselves are not racist… But they represent a time and ideology that, if it held true today, I wouldn’t be able to even talk to you right now.”

A citizen named Paul Gescheidle, who alluded to having ancestors that fought in the Civil War, opposed the bill and fired back at Anchía and Register.

“Mr. Jefferson Davis may not have been a Texan, but Mr. Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War in the State of Texas in 1855, I believe, and he brought with him a plan… to map what is now Big Bend National Park and also what became the early parts of Route 66. So, by that same logic, should we close Big Bend? Should we rename the Jefferson Davis Mountain Range?” Gescheidle said.

“Should we change all of our maps across our state? Should we also cancel John Ireland, former governor of this state, the 18th governor I might add, and the reason why this building is made of pink granite? Is that what we should take a sledgehammer to? Should that be our fundraiser: come take five-dollar whacks at the capitol building and take down a racist monument?”

Preserving Monuments

Throughout the night, committee member Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) pressed back against what one testifier called “presentism… an uncritical tendency to interpret the past in terms of modern values.” Clardy hinted that he may support Sherman’s bill but was the most vocal opponent of monument removal on the committee.

“You can’t build a tapestry this nation represents with just a few threads,” Clardy said.

“And some of them may seem oddly colored or a little strange or whatever, but woven together they weave a beautiful story, and we can’t start picking out the threads we don’t like or the whole thing comes unraveled.”

Clardy showed sympathy to a number of bills aimed at defending statues, names, and memorials, though supporters diverged on their own preferences. One bill by Rep. John Cyrier (R-Bastrop) would require local governments to get the approval of a popular vote before renaming or removing historic memorials, drawing praise from some right-leaning testifiers as a needed injection of popular will into a bureaucratic process but critique from the Republican Party of Texas.

David Wylie, representing the Texas GOP, called the bill “incremental at best.”

“Speaking on the monument priorities of the Republican Party coming from their state convention, the protection of monuments and markers and all the things of the history of Texas is of the utmost importance,” Wylie said.

“There are some other bills that we think would do a better job.”

Patterson voiced his support and foretold a rising tide of resentment towards American historical figures that could overtake more than just Confederate generals. Speaking of the Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston, Patterson hypothesized that they could fall to the same treatment.

“Did not the Buffalo Soldiers participate in a genocidal war against an entire race of people and enslave those people on reservations to die?” Patterson said.

“There is no one, no group, no icon from the past, that is exempt from criticism.”

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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.