In the Shadow of a Confederate Statue, a Dallas Sanctuary Becomes a Symbol of Troubled Times

In the Shadow of a Confederate Statue, a Dallas Sanctuary Becomes a Symbol of Troubled Times

Most days, Lee Park is just a park, a quiet preserve of 15 acres in Oak Lawn shaded by mature live oaks scattered around a broad hill of deep-green grass with wide paths and blooming gardens just away from the noise and bustle of the city beyond.

These aren’t most days. These are times of turmoil about the country’s past, its present and its future. And the park anchored by a massive statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee finds itself in the glare of Dallas’ attempt to come to grips with the days of change.

And so now, people who use the park every day, who’ve grown up near it and consider it part of their personal lives, must see it as something other than a park. It is no sanctuary from the outside world, from the anger and outrage whipsawing the country. It is today a heavy symbol of the trouble.

As she does every morning, Libby Barnes recently took a walk with her black and white 8-year-old shih tzu, Spike, along the paths of Lee Park. She has lived in Dallas all of her 70 years and today lives just across the street from the park.

“I walk here every day, three times a day,” she said, beaming and bright in a floral-pattern blouse on a steamy, overcast morning. “It’s very pretty, and it’s close to my apartment. I love the park.”

So does Dorothy Pullen, 63, who was walking her dog, Jersey. When she first moved here four years ago, Pullen quickly made friends with a group of people who would meet up most mornings, drink coffee and walk their dogs. “I felt welcome and right at home.”

As if on cue, she smiled at a familiar dog coming down the path. “Look, Jersey,” she said. “It’s Maggie.”

Matthew Chavez, 2, walks by as his mother, Miranda Taddei (in floral headwear), is readied before starting her marriage ceremony to Matthew Chavez near a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Robert E. Lee Park in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017.

Dorothy and Libby are among the regulars at Lee Park, located along Turtle Creek Boulevard. They come for a stroll or to take a break from work in one of the nearby high-rises.

Few come specifically to visit Lee’s statue, but some do, and it has its admirers. But events of the last week have changed the sense of the statue’s place in the park.

A week ago, clashes broke out in Charlottesville, Va. after white nationalists held a rally opposing the removal of a statue of Lee. The event simmered with violence but turned deadly when a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The alleged driver, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, was charged with second-degree murder.

Injured people receive first aid after a car ran into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12. A vehicle plowed into a crowd of people Saturday at a Virginia rally where violence erupted between white supremacist demonstrators and counterprotesters, witnesses said. One person was killed.

Dallas has not seen such violence around its Confederate memorials. Mayor Mike Rawlings, as well as other elected officials, have said the time has come for Dallas’ statues to go.

It’s a call that raises mixed feelings at Lee Park.

Pausing on her walk, Barnes said she doesn’t think the statue should come down. “It’s part of history,’ she said, an opinion shared by several regulars interviewed in Lee Park. “It’s a celebration,” she added, then paused as if searching for a better word, “a remembrance.”

But others feel conflicted. They’ve come to see the park and statue as one piece.

“From an artistic and historical perspective, I think it should stay,” said Keith Head, a 61-year-old Oak Lawn resident, who was walking Maggie. “It also commemorates those who died,” said Head, who counts among his ancestors both Confederate and Union soldiers.

But he also understood the reasons of those who want the statues removed: “that it represents racism and a time when people were treated very badly,” he said. “I just think it would be sad to see the statue go because it’s just beautiful.”

For Pullen, standing with Jersey under an oak’s shade, having to confront tough questions about an old neighbor — in this case, the statue — is not easy.

“Does it celebrate a time that shouldn’t be celebrated? Probably,” she said. “But there’s a difference between celebrating and memorializing, right?”

“Maybe it celebrates, and maybe it should go,” she said.

The Lee statue

Lee’s statue in Dallas is an 18-foot bronze affair with the general perched astride his cantering horse, Traveller, his boots in the stirrups, his hat in his right hand, a sword dangling from his left hip. Next to Lee is a young soldier, also on horseback, who represents all the young men inspired to fight under the general’s command.

It faces outward at the front of the park. Lee is frozen in motion as if he and Traveller are about to step into the intersection of Turtle Creek Boulevard and North Hall Street.

A view of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Robert E. Lee Park in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas on Wednesday. Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings called for a task force to study the issue of whether or not to remove the city’s Confederate monuments in Lee Park and Pioneer Plaza. The task force has 90 days to report their findings. The statue was unveiled by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 12, 1936.

Crafted by the artist A. Phimister Proctor in the midst of the Depression at a cost of some $40,000, the sculpture sits atop a thick granite base. It is approached by a flight of steps. A granite bench wraps around the back.

The statue’s dedication on June 12, 1936, attracted no less than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, already here for the state centennial.

In brief remarks that day, Roosevelt hailed Lee as one of the greatest figures in the nation’s history, a recounting of history that has come under scrutiny in the ensuing years.

“All over the United States, we regard him as a great leader of men and a great general,” Roosevelt said. He also described Lee as “one of the greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen,” according to the account in The Dallas Morning News.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (back seat, left), with Texas Gov. James Allred and other state officials, parades down Exposition Street in Dallas. He visited the Texas Centennial Exposition at Fair Park on June 12, 1936, and spoke to a huge crowd in the Cotton Bowl. Texas, he told his audience, was “100 years young.” He also dedicated the Robert E. Lee statue at Lee Park that day. (Photo from The Collections of the Dallas Historical Society)

Jesse H. Jones, a Texas financier and Roosevelt appointee, explained Lee’s appeal to those gathered, repeating an old and questioned legend about the rebel general that was told for generations after the Civil War. Though Lee could have led the Union forces for the North, “he would not draw the sword against his native Virginia,” Jones said. “He had no other course.”

Up the hill from Lee’s statue sits Arlington Hall, built in the late 1930s as a replica of his pre-Civil War, Greek Revival home in Virginia.

Over the years, Lee Park has played a central role in shaping the identity of Oak Lawn. Along with annual events like Easter in the Park and the Pooch Parade, it’s also become a desired location for weddings, engagements and graduation photos. The grounds are looked after by the nonprofit Lee Park & Arlington Hall Conservancy.

But the park is no stranger to controversy. Two years ago, the word “SHAME” was spray-painted in white capital letters across the base of the statue.

The vandalism occurred two weeks after a small group of protesters held an “un-dedication” at the park and a month after nine people were killed in a racially motivated attack at a church in Charleston, S.C.

Deep Texas roots

Daniel Shipman lives near Lee Park and comes at least once a week to sit and talk to people. He describes himself as a full-blooded, sixth-generation Texan, from Dumas, near Amarillo. And the 44-year-old computer programmer dresses the part. Today, he’s wearing a cowboy hat, Western shirt, pressed jeans and a pair of polished black boots.

He believes the statue should remain but completely rejects the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who protested in Charlottesville.

“Oh, God, no!” he said. “White supremacists are an evil scourge.”

“I’m not African-American and it would be presumptive of me to say what they’re thinking,” he said. “But I hope they recognize that this country has been in a long transition to rightfully bring people of all different backgrounds completely into the promise of America. And they’ve been left out for a long time.”

But you can’t erase history by removing the statues, he said.

A conversation about history

Around noon, Shipman walked over to the front of the statue and started talking to two African-American women who had stopped by during a break at work.

There were no Tiki torches, shouted slogans or scrawled protest signs. Just three people sitting on the steps of the statue and talking.

From left: Daniel Shipman, Adria Green and Crystal Sentell, all of Dallas, have a conversation about race, racism and Civil War history near a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Lee Park in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas on Wednesday.

Adria Green said she came to the park with an open mind. “I can’t tell you honestly why I came and sat on the steps. But Daniel came around and said, ‘I just want to ask you how you feel about this statue,’ ” she said.

Green told him, “It’s history and you can’t erase history.” But she said it was also unfair for the statue’s supporters to ignore that slavery was a pivotal part of the cause Lee fought for.

So Green and her friend Crystal listened to Shipman as he explained why he thought the statue should remain. They agreed on one thing. They worried about violence if rallies for or against the statue are held in Dallas.

“I just really wanted to have a conversation and just listen to what they think and how they feel, instead of just drawing my own conclusions based on what I’m seeing in the media,” Green said.

As they stood up to leave, the three of them hugged. “I appreciate this, Mr. Shipman,” Green said, smiling. “We appreciate you.”

Shipman suggested they stay away from protests scheduled on Saturday in Pioneer Plaza. “For real,” he said. “I’m staying away.”

Similar conversations took place later in the day, including one between two men, one white and one black, arguing over whether the Lee statue served a historical purpose.

“Do we put up statues of other people’s leaders after we defeat them?” asked Darrius Gates, a 29-year-old African American who works in Dallas and goes home to Houston on the weekends. “How can we glorify him? It doesn’t make sense.”

As he debated with Gates, Charles Foy, 47, of Plano, lamented how the country had become so polarized over this and other issues. “I don’t think there’s common ground for reconciliation.”

But Gates and Foy shook hands and said there should be more such conversations. “We’re having a dialogue and trying to understand each other’s perspective,” Gates said. “Instead of violence, we have two people talking to each other.”

A different vibe

In the evening, the park’s vibe picked up as people came to exercise. The dog walkers shared the paths with joggers and bicycle riders. Two different “boot camp” workout groups showed up at the park.

At one end, near Turtle Creek Boulevard, Camp Gladiator included about two dozen people of different ages and races, a microcosm of the current Dallas population. As they started doing squats and other warm-up exercises, their trainer, Colin Felch, was asked for his thoughts about the Lee statue.

“Honestly,” Felch says, glancing over at the figure of Lee a few yards away, “I never really gave it a second thought.”

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