Racist Symbols in Public Space
Chloe Dotson reflects on what is and isn’t memorialized in the Rio Grande Valley.
Cities are a reflection of the perspectives, values, character, and history of a society. The public spaces within our cities are the stages on which society expresses itself.
From its beginning, Brownsville has been a battleground for Tejanx, Chicanx, and Latinx liberation. Today this manifests itself in culturally diverse, colorful street art, streetscapes, storefronts, and events like Charro Days that take place on the streets of downtown. Yet the city’s public spaces tend to highlight the history of Manifest Destiny and white supremacy while continuing to ignore the region’s violent history of oppression against the majority population: people of color.
Brownsville’s history is riddled with land theft, racial oppression, and socioeconomic disparity.1Learn more in the introduction to this report. Between the founding of Brownsville in 1848 and the early 1900s, the Texas Rangers perpetrated horrific assaults and murders on people of Mexican descent on private property and in public spaces.2Learn more about this history of violence.3Martinez, M. M. (2014). Recuperating Histories of Violence in the Americas: Vernacular History-Making on the US–Mexico Border. American Quarterly, 66(3), 661–689. doi:10.1353/aq.2014.0040 In 1906, 167 Black US soldiers stationed at Fort Brown were falsely accused of raiding downtown Brownsville, killing one white bartender, and wounding a white police officer. White Brownsville residents planted evidence against the soldiers, and white Texas Rangers led the investigation, which culminated in President Theodore Roosevelt dishonorably discharging the soldiers.4Learn more about this history. Events like these and their ramifications are not memorialized in Brownsville, yet two public spaces in Brownsville memorialize the Confederacy: the Robert E. Lee Youth Center at Texas Southmost College and a Confederate States of America marker at the Brownsville Convention and Visitors Bureau. The streets and parks in the oldest part of the city, the historic downtown area, are almost entirely named after Anglo-Americans, with little recognition of the contributions or history of people of color.
Public spaces and their monuments in Brownsville and across the country are epicenters for discussions of social, economic, and civic transformation. Current national conversations—on monuments as methods of perpetuating false and/or harmful historical narratives, and on the absence of monuments to people of color—are complicating narratives and enriching our understanding of the past. With over 80 percent of the population being persons of color, Brownsville has a distinct opportunity to fundamentally change and modify these spaces to create a more equitable city.
The Mexican-American War, which started where Brownsville sits today, was waged by the expansionist-minded administration of President James K. Polk, who believed the United States had a “manifest destiny” to spread across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. By the time the war ended in 1848, Mexico had lost about one-third of its territory.
The end of the Mexican-American War and, later, the Civil War sparked large influxes of whites from other states, reshaping Brownsville’s ethnic structure. However, the town’s new residents, mostly Protestant and white, quickly sought to dominate and impose their culture. Relations between persons of Mexican descent and the white population continued to deteriorate. Many of the new white immigrants saw their Mexican-American neighbors as “racial inferiors” ignorant of the American way of life, while Mexican-Americans, the majority of whom worked as common laborers, became increasingly resentful. This resentment was compounded by land grabs by white settlers, mostly through dubious paperwork or brute force. In a 2016 article about the history of violence against Mexican-Americans at the border, author Rebecca Onion described the process through which Anglo settlers were able to acquire land:
Because records of land ownership in the region had been poorly maintained when the land was less desirable, Anglo settlers could often challenge ownership in court. If the Tejano living on the land didn’t have the funds to fight such a challenge, they ended up selling parcels in order to pay legal fees. Sometimes, [author Benjamin Heber] Johnson writes, white ranchers “resorted to the simple expedient of occupying a desired tract and violently expelling previous occupants.” The end result was catastrophic for the Tejano community: Between 1900 and 1910, more than 187,000 acres of land transferred from Tejano to Anglo hands, in just two Texas counties (Cameron and Hidalgo). Many who lost their land ended up working on it, paid, not well, by its new owners.5Onion, Rebecca. “America’s Lost History of Border Violence,” Slate, May 05, 2016. See source.
These land grabs were reinforced by Texas Rangers and the extrajudicial killings of Mexican-Americans by local police. Mexican-Americans eventually began to fight back, which led to a turning point in Brownsville’s race relations in the early twentieth century.
According to Refusing to Forget: The History Of Racial Violence On The Mexico Texas Border, some of the worst racial violence in the nation’s history took place along the Mexico–Texas border from 1910 to 1920.
The dead included women and men, the aged and the young, long-time residents and recent arrivals. [Mexican-Americans] were killed by [white] strangers, by neighbors, by vigilantes and at the hands of local law enforcement officers and the Texas Rangers. Some were summarily executed after being taken captive, or shot under the flimsy pretext of trying to escape. Some were left in the open to rot, others desecrated by being burnt, decapitated, or tortured by means such as having beer bottles rammed into their mouths. Extralegal executions became so common that a San Antonio reporter observed that “finding of dead bodies of Mexicans, suspected for various reasons of being connected with the troubles, has reached a point where it creates little or no interest. It is only when a raid is reported or an American is killed that the ire of the people is aroused.”6“The History of Racial Violence on the Mexico-Texas Border.” Refusing to Forget, April 16, 2018. See source.
This violent period, known as the Matanza, occurred at the same time as the Mexican Revolution, forcing people of Mexican descent to make a choice between living in dangerous Brownsville or wartime Matamoros.
This period of death and intimidation reinforced the structural and economic foundations of oppression and the social conditioning of racism that continue to exist today. These values have been memorialized and preserved in monuments to the forefathers of the great ills in America’s criminal history. For instance, in Brownsville, historical markers have been erected commemorating the Siege of Fort Brown, Charles Stillman, and The Battle of Resaca de la Palma: figures and events crucial to the founding of Brownsville and symbolic of violence against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.7Learn more about the history of Brownsville in this report’s introduction. In contrast, there are few memorials to those killed during this violent period in Brownsville.
The Confederacy and Jim Crow
Texas has more than 180 public symbols of the Confederacy sprinkled throughout public spaces, in the form of schools, roads, monuments, and county names.8Blanchard, Bobby. “Texas Has More than 180 Public Symbols of the Confederacy. Explore Them Here.” The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune, August 21, 2017. See source. One of Brownsville’s Confederate monuments, which city workers removed under the cover of night in June 2020,9Sheridan, Erin. “MONUMENT DECISION: Commission to Consider Davis Memorial’s Removal.” The Brownsville Herald, June 16, 2020. See source. was dedicated to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, a person who fought to protect and promote the systematically entrenched value of white privilege and supremacy and the right to own and treat black and brown bodies as personal property.10 “Today in History – May 10.” The Library of Congress. Accessed October 30, 2020. See source.
To understand the significance of these monuments to oppression within Brownsville’s public spaces, one must understand their origin: During and after the Reconstruction era, state governments throughout the former Confederate south passed legislation to uphold racial hierarchies and economic systems dependent on exploiting the labor of black and brown bodies. This took form first through the “black codes” and later the Jim Crow laws, preventing people of color from claiming their rights granted by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.
Dr. Sarah Beetham, an expert in Civil War monuments and an assistant professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, describes the history of these monuments to the Confederacy: “When the Confederate monuments start to really come up in the 1890s, they are absolutely victory monuments showing that the white South has won this war that they’ve waged during Reconstruction to try to roll back all of the protections that had been espoused for Black Americans after the Civil War was over.”11“Confederate Monuments Are Coming Down Across the Country—And Historians Aren’t Surprised.” Mentalfloss.com. June 12, 2020. See source.
Groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the United Daughters of the Confederacy helped enforce these laws that maintained white supremacy. Monuments were a key part of former Confederate states’ efforts to redefine Civil War history. It is in this era that these symbols of brutality, hatred, and immorality sprang up in prominent locations like town squares, courthouse lawns, and public parks. For example, in 1926, the Daughters of the Confederacy, a group of white women empowered by a group of white elites, erected the Jefferson Davis monument in Brownsville: a symbol of white supremacy in a city with a majority Mexican and Tejano population.
The erection of monuments glorifying oppression is a profound statement of power and pride in the inhumane systematic and institutional treatment and dehumanization of non-white populations. Yet today, more than ever before in the history of the US, oppressive monuments within public spaces that illuminate, solidify, and exemplify whitewashed history are being removed and reconsidered.
As cities work to take monuments down, relocate them to less central locations, or move them to museums, it is crucial to remember that taking down a monument is not the same as dismantling the systemic racism that enabled it to be first produced and celebrated: racism that has manifested in slavery, genocide, dehumanization, murder, rape, pillaging, physical and social separation and segregation, mass incarceration, Jim Crow, social intimidation, intentional child separation, asylum concentration camps, and “all lives matter” responses to the continuous mass murder of black and brown bodies.
The ideologies of white supremacy and manifest destiny are, to this day, entrenched in the hearts of many citizens. Taken in isolation, the removal of monuments from our public spaces does little for black and brown Americans. The inequalities these individuals experience today are partly a reflection of the founding of this country and its history of genocide, slavery, and abusive land negotiations and acquisition. Brownsville and its citizens have the opportunity, and the social and political power, to reclaim the city’s public spaces to reflect the aspirations of all residents.
This past Fourth of July, a group of Indigenous women in Detroit, Michigan, reclaimed space on a century-old monument to Christopher Columbus which the city had removed a month prior. Reclaiming this space on July 4 was an effort to lift up “relationships with sacred land and not colonial infrastructures & holidays rooted in white supremacy,” according to lvndbvck.com, a website for the event. Brownsville, with its unique culture, history, and values, can act in a similar manner to tell a more accurate history. With their own voices, residents and community leaders of Texas’s southernmost border city now have the opportunity to debate what should be memorialized and celebrated in public space, while envisioning opportunities for a more equitable future.
Brownsville’s residents have a monumental opportunity to denounce entrenched colonial aspirations and reestablish a connection with the land and history. The citizens of Brownsville have the authority to shape and design public spaces that serve to educate and empower a city with a majority population of people of color.