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Texas Senate to review chamber’s art, including Confederate paintings

AUSTIN — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has announced that a special committee will review artwork in the Texas Senate chamber, delivering on a promise he made this year during debate on a bill that would have made it harder to remove Confederate monuments and other historical markers.

Patrick, a Republican who oversees the upper chamber as Senate president, named seven senators — four Republicans and three Democrats — to the committee. They will be in charge of reviewing “the history and procedures for the placement of art and other decor” in the chamber, according to Patrick’s office.

Patrick pledged to create the committee during this year’s legislative session, when the Senate passed a bill aimed at changing how and when historical monuments and memorials could be moved, altered or removed. The bill, sponsored by Conroe Republican Brandon Creighton, passed along partisan lines in the Senate but faltered in the Texas House, where it was amended then failed to get a floor vote.

While the bill was sponsored in the House by the state’s only black Republican lawmaker, black senators raised concerns about it during more than four hours of heated debate in that chamber.

“There was a time I would go to jail for challenging you as I am challenging you today in this diplomatic environment,” Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, told Creighton, who he described as a personal friend. “As your brother, I’m telling you the bill that you’re carrying … is disgraceful to myself.”

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, pointed over his shoulder at the larger-than-life sized painting of Albert Sidney Johnston that hung on the chamber wall behind him. Johnston was a Confederate general who served in the U.S. Army and was secretary of war for the Republic of Texas before the Civil War.

“It’s a painful reminder of the history of Texas,” West told the Austin American-Statesman at the time. “I often wonder why a Confederate general hangs in the state Capitol, specifically in the Senate chamber.”

Paintings of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and John H. Reagan, who resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives when Texas seceded and later became the Confederate postmaster general, also hang in the Senate. A state office building just north of the Capitol also bears Reagan’s name. Also featured in the chamber are depictions of Barbara Jordan, the first black state senator after Reconstruction, and the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto.

Confederate markers around the country have come under fire in recent years, as local jurisdictions decide to change the names of schools and streets and, in some places, remove these monuments to the so-called Lost Cause altogether. In the last few years, the city of Dallas took down and sold a statue of Robert E. Lee and the University of Texas at Austin moved a statute of Davis to its history center on campus.

In January, lawmaker-turned-Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson convinced a state panel to approve removal of a Confederate plaque that hung near his office in the Texas Capitol. That plaque has sat in storage ever since, its fate yet to be determined by the panel led by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Creighton, during debate on his monuments bill, pointed to these removals as the impetus for his efforts.

“We’ve seen a trend across the nation and the world where controversial monuments are removed and destroyed,” Creighton said. “I fear that we’ll look back and regret that this was a period where deleting history was more important than learning from it.”

West, who is now running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican John Cornyn, held up a copy of Texas’ Declaration of Causes. The state’s reasons for secession from the Union included maintaining the institution of slavery, which the document described as “mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator.”

“The state back then used Almighty God — Almighty God — as a reason in order to secede and to maintain slavery of African Americans,” West said.

Creighton responded: “We own the history that you brought to me just now. I’m just simply saying we need to own it outright, and we need to continue to walk and continue on that journey and continue to learn from it.”

Neither Creighton nor West was named to the special committee reviewing the chamber’s art, and neither returned requests for comment this week.

No date has been set for the committee’s first meeting. Members include Republicans Paul Bettencourt of Houston, Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, Bryan Hughes of Mineola and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown; in addition to Miles, Democratic members are Beverly Powell of Burleson and Kirk Watson of Austin.

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