Read here about how the Jefferson Davis status was taken down last weekend here at UT. This story by a UT Urban Studies lecturer, Dr. Rich Heyman, sheds light on who John H. Reagan—after whom so many schools have been named—actually was. Not the hero some think that he was, particularly for the neo-Confederate agenda.
Since the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., people around the country have been debating the display of Confederate namesakes and symbols with new fervor.
This weekend in Austin, the University of Texas followed through on plans to
remove a statue of Jefferson Davis, but keep statues of Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John H. Reagan. The Austin school district
is currently contemplating changing the names of several schools named for Confederates, including Robert E. Lee Elementary and John H. Reagan
people know much about Reagan. A myth about him has been repeated during
public forums at UT, at school district meetings, and in the Statesman:
That, although he served as postmaster general of the Confederacy, he
was actually a moderate who after the Civil War encouraged his fellow
Texans to cooperate with the federal government, renounced slavery and
secession, and advocated allowing freed slaves to vote. It is also
pointed out that Reagan served in the U.S. Senate after the Civil War
and as the first railroad commissioner of Texas, implying that he “made
good” after the war and was reformed.
This is a misinformed view of Reagan: He was an unrepentant defender of secession and white supremacy until the end of his life.
As postmaster general, Reagan was part of Jefferson Davis’ cabinet and
therefore was part of the central decision-making of the Confederacy.
Furthermore, as the longest surviving member of the Confederate cabinet,
Reagan became a spokesperson for the myth of the Lost Cause, giving
speeches that defended and justified secession, such as one at the
meeting of the United Confederate Veterans in Fort Worth
on April 19, 1903. Rather than renouncing the aims of the Confederacy,
he became one of the key voices keeping its ideology alive into the 20th
Reagan’s views on black voting rights after the war has
also been misrepresented. What he advocated after the Civil War was a
cynical approach to appeasing Union demands in order to minimize the
impacts of emancipation in Texas. In page 227 of his 1906 memoir,
he maintained that the “elevation of the slaves to all the dignities of
citizenship” was an “evil” that needed to be prevented; what he
advocated was “to make such concessions [to the Union] as we would
inevitably be required to make … to save us from universal negro
suffrage.” Rather than advocating voting rights for blacks, Reagan
wanted to minimize them.
He first outlined this position in a
letter he wrote while imprisoned in Boston’s Fort Warren at the end of
the war. The letter explains in detail how black disenfranchisement
could be accomplished: “By fixing an intellectual and moral, and, if
thought advisable, a property test, for the admission of all persons to
the exercise of the elective franchise, without reference to race or
color.” By doing so, “no person now entitled to the privilege of voting
should be deprived of it by any new test.” In other words, he proposed
crafting laws in such a way as to prevent blacks — but not whites — from
exercising the right to vote. Reagan’s approach was exactly the one
white supremacists were able to put in place across the South following
Reconstruction, when African-Americans were systematically
disenfranchised through “literacy tests” and poll taxes. And it was
exactly this route that led directly to the need for the Voting Rights
Act of 1965.
Far from being reformed, Reagan continued to defend
the actions and ideology of the Confederacy to the end of his life, and
helped lay the groundwork for key tenets of post-reconstruction white
supremacy in Texas, most notably the denial of voting rights to blacks.
Reagan, while an influential politician in 19th and 20th century Texas,
is not worthy of the honor of having an educational institution named
for him. He does not represent the values or ideals of Austin, the
Austin Independent School District or the state of Texas.
Heyman is an urban studies lecturer at the University of Texas.