I visited the Texas Civil War Museum in White Settlement, Texas last October. It’s at the Silver Creek exit off I-820 just west of Fort Worth, an exit I’ve taken since the early 2000s on my way to the Hip Pocket Theatre. My daughter has been in shows at Hip Pocket, and we’ve come to know the folks at the theater pretty well.
We often mused about what it would be like for two Black people to walk into a museum that celebrates the Confederacy, in a city called White Settlement. My visit to the museum, which has only been around since 2006, came a month after the Robert E. Lee statue in Dallas’ Turtle Creek Park (formerly Lee Park) was removed by the city of Dallas.
The statue removal was prompted by the previous national debate over Civil War Confederate monuments. That debate was reignited when tiki-torch bearing protesters in Charlottesville marched to protect their own Lee statue, and a suspected white nationalist named James Fields, Jr. drove into a crowd of counter protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Last July, Fields was convicted and sentenced to life in prison plus 419 years after pleading guilty to 29 of 30 federal hate-crime charges.
I didn’t know what to expect on my visit, and was prepared for the worst.
The foundation statement on the website reads:
“The men and women represented in the TCWM may have had nothing more to leave to us and to those who come after us except reminders of a heritage very rich in honor and glory. The ideas of liberty and freedom are fundamental lessons that must be taught, learned, and defined for each generation.We have the opportunity to make a difference. We have the responsibility to not only educate our children but to remember the sacrifices of those who came before us. We invite you to partner with us to ensure the propetual telling of this uniquely American story.”
But I had to immediately ask myself: Whose heritage? What honor, and what glory? Outside of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1st edition), which the display text points out as stoking divisions and making slavery “one of the major issues that led to civil war,” there are scant references to slavery at the Texas Civil War Museum. As far as I could see, there wasn’t a single display, exhibit, artifact, or reference to enslaved people from Africa, or any account of the terror of slavery.
Neither was there mention of lynchings, of what it was like to be enslaved, nor images of any Black person anywhere in the building. I found it impossible to find any of the ideals emblazoned on a banner from the Texas Confederate Museum Collection, which read “Historical, Educational, Benevolent, Patriotic.” It certainly didn’t jibe with “the responsibility to educate our children,” that is part of the Museum’s statement. There is a lot of missing history here, and the “ideas of liberty and freedom” are directed only to the descendants of people who are honored here. But the “Memorial” aspect of the banner, a memorial to the Confederacy, was everywhere.
In some of the section exhibits were signs that asked: “Was the South Ready for War?” The signs then listed a comparative logistics chart of troop strength, population, equipment or other metrics suggesting that perhaps if the South were better prepared, they would have won the war. What the exhibits do not speculate on is what that would’ve meant for the 3,950,531 enslaved people in the South.
There were other text-based curiosities here that I had to look at twice, to make sure I was reading correctly. For instance, posthumus medals of honor were still being given to dead Confederate soldiers as late as July, 23, 2017, by the Confederate States of America. I didn’t know the Confederate States of America was still around.
There were also cut-outs of both Confederate and Union soldiers at the gift shop/reception area. As well as bobble heads of strange bedfellows.
It has been almost a year since my visit, and to say a lot has happened in the 10 months since is an understatement. One such thing, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, has led to protests against police brutality and institutionalized racism across America. What has also followed is a renewed resolve to remove the symbols of the Confederacy represented by statues of its heroes, its flag, and representations in art, music, and literature.
On June 28 in Mississippi, the state House voted 91-23 and the Senate 37-14 to approve the removal of the Confederate emblem of the stars and bars from its state flag, a fight that began way back in April of 1982. John Hawkins, an African American cheerleader at Ole Miss (Mississippi State University) was asked if he would follow the tradition of the cheerleading squad and run the field carrying the banner. He said no, and the fight began. There is a really great podcast about it here.
Confederate statues in the US South have also been rapidly coming down, from Virginia to South Carolina, Kentucky, and here in Texas, to name a few states. It remains to be seen how this and other Civil War museums will respond to these changes, if at all.
Some have suggested that all the toppled statues, monuments, plaques, and flags be placed in museums or other more appropriate locations, but to what end? Many of the names, symbols, and banners that exist to celebrate the heritage and legacy of the Confederacy have also been proudly and ominously erected toward the terrorizing, intimidation, and murder of Black folks, and walking through the Texas Civil War Museum was painful, demoralizing, and difficult. I can’t imagine how any Black visitors here (I imagine some of them have been Black) could feel much differently.
For more images from my visit, please see below.