During one of my last terms in office in the Texas Legislature, while listening to the House debate state facilities funding, I found myself gazing at the Reagan Building, one of the few state office buildings on Texas Capitol grounds.
I’d not given much thought to the Reagan Building and might have once assumed it was named for Ronald Reagan. With a few hours to burn, my idleness led me to sit down and find out just who this Reagan was.
Tennessee-born John Henninger Reagan was a Texas congressman who became postmaster of the Confederacy. After Richmond fell, Reagan fled south with Jefferson Davis, becoming secretary of the treasury right before he and Davis were captured. A decade later, Reagan returned to D.C., serving again as a congressman and then a senator. He ended his career on the Texas Railroad Commission, retiring in 1903, two years before his death.
Like many in this era, Reagan is hard to pigeonhole into a one-dimensional frame. He was initially pro-Union but, after fiery abolitionist John Brown’s famous anti-slavery raid, became a full-fledged secessionist. He advocated bringing the country together after the war but maintained positions blocking full rights for former slaves. And now his name is on our building.
I then went on to pull up the names of other buildings on Capitol grounds. One is named for Tom C. Clark, former U.S. attorney general and Supreme Court justice. Another honors Price Daniel, our former U.S. senator, governor and Texas Supreme Court justice. The last is named after Sam Houston and you must leave Texas immediately if you don’t know what he did.
More to the point, I was baffled why Reagan was on par with Sam Houston and got his name on this big state government building. So after securing a few others’ opinions, including that of a former high school history teacher, I decided to initiate a more formal discussion.
Since the bill being debated involved facilities funding and since the Reagan Building was one of those facilities, I thought, “Voila!” and offered an amendment to rename the Reagan Building after famed attorney, educator and civil rights icon Barbara Jordan, the first African-American congresswoman from Texas. Today the Reagan Building is still the Reagan Building, so I guess you know how successful I was.
But since the University of Texas last week moved John Reagan’s statue from public grounds (it’s bound for the Briscoe Center for American History on campus) and the subsequent filing of a suit by the Sons of Confederate Veterans contesting the move, I’m guessing we’re all about to have another discussion about the Reagan Building. And that discussion, if full of good faith, is important.
I’m not one in favor of uprooting every dubious monument and renaming every building we have out of political correctness or some change in cultural or political emphasis. But I do believe a deliberate and open discussion should be had about those when legitimate questions arise. We should not try to erase history, but history is erased if we don’t understand certain periods of history and the complexity of the people honored in bronze, brick or mortar. Most are not the starkly one-dimensional people now being made poster children of hate for some and gallant figures of virtue for others.
We can have honest discussions about Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s place in history, but if we are debating statues of Lee, then Lee’s own feelings on Confederate monuments should be considered. When asked about memorials after the war, Lee wrote: “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
Of another monument proposal, Lee wrote: “As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated, my conviction is that, however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the country would have the effect of retarding instead of accelerating its accomplishment; of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour.”
Lee’s advice focuses on what helps speed our healing as a nation — and what simply serves to keep open the wounds of our prior division. That this discussion is still going on 150 years later says something about Lee’s post-war wisdom and judgment.
And just as we must put General Lee in the historical context of his time, we must look at the historical context of each monument itself at the time it was erected. After all, isn’t the actual motive behind the statue essential to our broader understanding? Was it put up to actually honor someone for contributions to Texas? Or was it erected in the 1920s to make a political statement about something else going on in the 1920s, with the actual 1860s person memorialized being of secondary concern?
Our history is not kept or lost by a piece of granite but, rather, by whether or not we ourselves learn, remember and teach it. Regardless of how we memorialize regrettable parts of our past, we should all agree that they should not be forgotten.
So back to John Henninger Reagan. We need another discussion about renaming the Reagan Building after Barbara Jordan — or at least someone we’ve actually heard of. It might help, too, if the prospective honoree didn’t have secession as a reason for glorification through the ages.