AUSTIN, Texas — The University of Texas quickly removed statues of Robert E. Lee and other prominent Confederate figures overnight from the main area of the Austin campus, a spokesman said Monday morning, just hours after the school's president ordered they be taken down.
University President Greg Fenves announced late Sunday night that the statues would be removed, saying such monuments have become "symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism." Crews started working amid a heavy police presence.
Fenves said statues of Lee, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston and Confederate Postmaster General John H. Reagan would be moved to the Briscoe Center for American History on campus. The university in 2015 moved a statue of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its perch near the campus clock tower, the same area as the other statues, to the history museum.
Less than 30 people, both supporters and opponents of Fenves' order, congregated after midnight behind barricades near the statues. Among them was Mark Peterson, who identified himself as a University of Houston student. He was seething at the removal of the statues.
"I hate the erasure of history and my people's history ... people of European descent who built this country," the 22-year-old said. "It burns me to my core."
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Mike Lowe, an activist for the removal of Confederate statues in San Antonio, was driving to Dallas when he heard the statues were coming down, turned around and drove to campus. Lowe, who is African-American, engaged in a brief but tense argument with a white male protester until police stepped in to separate them.
"They have no other reasons than 'you are erasing our history.' Their reasoning is flawed. These monuments represent white supremacy, and black lives haven't mattered in this county the same as a white man's matters," the 37-year-old Lowe said.
The debate over public memorials for Confederate figures roared into national conversation last week after a woman was killed and 19 were injured when a car drove into a crowd of people in a clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"Last week, the horrific displays of hatred at the University of Virginia and in Charlottesville shocked and saddened the nation. These events make it clear, now more than ever, that Confederate monuments have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism," Fenves said in a statement.
Moving the Davis statue in 2015 was a much more deliberate effort. The Davis statue had long been a target of vandalism. Fenves convened a special task force to discuss its future after a shooting rampage by a white supremacist at a Charleston, South Carolina, church and ultimately decided it should come down.
Confederate groups tried to block the removal of the Davis statue and the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued to stop it, but a state district judge sided with the school.
The decision to take down the others came much quicker. Fenves said he spoke last week with student leaders, students, faculty members, staff members and alumni about what to do after the events in Virginia.
"The University of Texas at Austin is a public educational and research institution, first and foremost. The historical and cultural significance of the Confederate statues on our campus — and the connections that individuals have with them — are severely compromised by what they symbolize," Fenves said.
"Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans. That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry," he said.
Crews early Monday first removed a statue of former Texas Gov. James Stephen Hogg, which was commissioned at the same time as the others, a spokesman said. Hogg will get another place on campus.
Asked why the school decided to remove the statues during the overnight hours, university spokesman Gary Susswein said recent events played a factor.
"We've seen what happened elsewhere," Susswein said. "The timing was designed to ensure public safety and provide minimal disruption to campus."
CORRECTION (9:40 a.m., Aug. 21): An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the research center at the University of Texas where the statues will be relocated. It is the Briscoe Center For American History, not the Brisco Center.