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County judge proposes removal of Confederate monuments

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    County Judge Paul Pape introduces the special public hearing on July 7 regarding the courthouse monuments. File photo

After a protest at the courthouse and a special hearing over the past month, Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape introduced a proposed resolution that would pave the way for the removal of Confederate monuments from the county courthouse lawn.

On June 22, a group of protesters gathered in front of the county courthouse, while others spoke to the commissioners’ court at the regular meeting that morning, requesting the removal of two Confederate monuments from the courthouse lawn. In response, the court set a special public hearing on July 7, where invited speakers argued their perspectives on the issue and dozens of Bastrop County residents voiced their approval for or opposition to relocating the monuments.

The regular meeting on July 13 included a discussion-only item to discuss a resolution regarding the monuments. At the beginning of the discussion item, seven people spoke to the court about the monuments. Five spoke in favor of removal, while one spoke against removal and another asked that the decision not be rushed.

Before beginning his statement about the monuments, County Judge Paul Pape said he would not consider the petition in his decision. After looking through the thousands of names on the petition, he said he and his staff only found 766 names of people who could possibly be Bastrop County residents. He added that some people who signed the petition listed their location as “Corona” or signed the petition with Pape’s name.

“This survey that was taken about the monuments is, unfortunately, very unscientific and therefore unprovable to its validity,” he said. “Social media is good for many things; it’s also bad for many things. It may be of interest what New York or California think about the monument on our courthouse lawn, but it is not a matter that I'm going to consider in my decision-making.”

Pape then continued with his thoughts about the monuments. He read the minutes of the May 9, 1910 meeting of the Bastrop County Commissioners Court, during which they approved the spending of $150 to construct the foundation for the Confederate monument from the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) “for the purpose of further beautifying the courthouse yard.” Pape also quoted an article from the Bastrop Advertiser about the laying of the foundation on June 3, 1910, which included a gathering hosted by the UDC. The article said the monument would “tell future generations the story and the glory of those who wore the gray,” and local judges gave talks “voicing the love for the South and her Institutions,” a reference to southern slavery.

“I believe we know that (the monument) was placed under the guise of a war memorial as subtle indoctrination for the Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” Pape said, referencing the Lost Cause, a belief that the Confederate States of America and its reasons for fighting were justified. “This happened at the height of movements all over the South for these same kinds of memorials.”

Pape said that the UDC rewrote history back in 1910 by promoting this narrative of the Civil War.

“We will not be rewriting history by moving these Confederate monuments from the courthouse yard; instead, we will be writing a wrong of history,” he said. “It is time that we remove that false narrative from this very public place.”

The Civil War was fought over the states’ rights to continue slavery, Pape said, and even though the slaves were freed, they were discriminated against due to Jim Crow laws.

“Soon after the federal government’s reconstruction of the southern states, state and local governments in the South began passing laws that made black people’s lives just about as miserable as they had been before the war,” he said.

The UDC, along with the Ku Klux Klan, promoted their own version of slavery and its part in the Civil War, persuading local governments across the South to set up these Confederate monuments, Pape said.

“Proof of the effectiveness of their efforts is seen in the fact that here we are today, 110 years later, talking about the meaning and the appropriateness of this memorial,” he said. “The images and symbols and words of this monument clearly and overtly, but wrongly, attribute honor, nobility and rightness to the Confederate cause. These symbols meant something when the monument was erected, and they still mean something today. This obelisk monument goes beyond honoring those who died in a terrible war.

“I do not believe that these monuments beautify the courthouse yard,” Pape continued. “They represent a shameful past: a past when enslaving other humans was more important than national unity. There’s nothing right or noble about the way African-Americns were treated after the Civil War … so now is the time—in fact, it is past time—to take appropriate actions to correct as best we can the misgivings of the past, to remove these public representations of prejudice, segregation and enslavement.”

Pape concluded by saying that removing the monuments from the public place where they sit would not rewrite history, but would be a “step in setting things right” and promote peace in Bastrop County.

“I realize that I may have just sold my soul, and my political career may be over,” Pape said after a round of applause from the courtroom. “If that’s what it takes to get these monuments removed, I am willing to make that sacrifice.”

He then read the draft of a resolution for the court to remove the Confederate monuments with private funding and find an alternate location for them.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Donna Snowden, agreeing, said she has given the issue much thought, but she would like to give it more thought.

“I like to preserve history, and that’s been a problem for me,” she said. “I think it’s important, but I also think it’s important to consider the lives of our friends.”

Precinct 2 Commissioner Clara Beckett said she has also been “contemplating this topic with a heavy heart.” Texas had a large population of Union sympathizers, some of whom died for their beliefs, and many soldiers were drafted to fight in the Civil War, she pointed out.

“That part is concerning to me when we’re talking about the memorial of soldiers,” she said. “It’s a tearing issue.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Mark Meuth said he would rather the issue be put on a ballot and let the voters of Bastrop County decide.

“I’ve got 10,667 registered voters in my precinct; I don’t feel right with me making a vote,” he said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Mel Hamner said that veterans in the community should be heard in this decision.

“I’ll support moving the monument if the veterans support that,” he said. “When I looked at (the monuments) before, I definitely saw veterans defending their cause and their nation, but I also understand the feelings of being hurt. Veterans are from all walks of life, but they need to be heard on this issue.”

Hamner and Pape then began discussing possible places for the monuments to be relocated, such as Bastrop’s Fairview Cemetery, and local historians who could help provide input. 

“We have (Civil War veterans’) names, we know where their graves are located,” Pape said. “If we could find a way that the (City of Bastrop) could perhaps lease some land to the county, or make a site available so we could move those monuments to the cemetery, they would still be memorials to veterans who lost their lives in a horrible war, but they wouldn’t be standing at the gate of the county courthouse.”

Finally, Pape addressed the question about the referendum vote. He said that the Secretary of State’s office would not allow such an item on the ballot. Additionally, the original placement of the monument was due to a vote by the commissioners’ court, not the public.

“As far as I know, there’s no provision for a public vote,” he said. “Even if there were, I think this is a decision to be made by this court.”