While cities and college campuses across the U.S. are removing Confederate monuments after the violent “Unite The Right” rally in Charleston, how will the Rio Grande Valley organize against the Confederate monuments in our own backyard?
The RGV is home to at least three Confederate monuments and buildings: Robert E. Lee Elementary in Edinburg, the Robert E. Lee Youth Center at Texas Southmost College, and the Jefferson Davis Monument in Brownsville.
Additionally, a chapter of the Neo-Confederate group Sons of Confederate Veterans has existed in Harlingen since April 2012, according to a Facebook post from the Texas Division Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Map: Confederate Monuments and Neo-Confederate Groups in the RGV
More than two years ago, Brownsville resident Antonio Castillo started a petition to have the Jefferson Davis Monument relocated to the Historic Brownsville Museum. The petition now has more than 5,000 signatures.
“Brownsville has had numerous racist incidents in the past,” Castillo wrote in the petition. “Our biggest one happened in 1906…. We also had a bridge known as ‘N’ bridge and it appeared on local maps with the racist slur. We can only imagine what took place on that bridge.”
The historic racist incident that Castillo references is known as the Brownsville Affair of 1906 where black infantrymen were framed by white residents for a shooting incident that left one white bartender and one police officer dead.
“Although there was no trial, and the men were not given a hearing or the opportunity to confront their accusers, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered 167 black infantrymen discharged without honor because of their alleged conspiracy of silence,” as stated on the PBS website. “Some of the men dismissed had over twenty years of service and were only a short time away from retirement with pensions.”
The backlash by Neo-Confederate groups has been strong against Castillo. Some local residents who have ties to the Confederacy have even threatened to use violence to prevent the relocation of the Jefferson Davis Monument, according to Castillo.
Most recently, a letter appeared in the Valley Morning Star on Aug. 11 calling Castillo’s efforts a “cheap publicity stunt” and citing that his last name may indicate that he, too, has family ties to the Confederacy.
“Antonio, we should not judge these soldiers of the Civil War,” Jacob Ayoub of Harlingen wrote in the letter, “but honor their bravery and courage for their choices that they felt they had to make.”
In response, Samuel Cavazos of Weslaco came in defense of Castillo.
“These thugs are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans from both sides of the border,” Cavazos wrote in the letter titled “Attack nonsense.”
In the Change.org petition, Castillo also mentioned the Robert E. Lee Youth Center located at the Texas Southmost College in Brownsville. Castillo learned of the building after he and his wife were voting for TSC’s Board of Trustees in 2016 and were directed to that building to vote.
Ater Castillo highlighted the Robert E. Lee Youth Center in the petition, El Rrun Rrun, a local blog, wrote a piece titled “If Robert E. Lee had won, she would not have voted.”
“Theresa Marie Boston is an African-American woman married to our friend Antonio Castillo,” user JMON of El Rrun Rrun wrote. “If Davis and Robert E. Lee had won, Theresa and her babies probably would not have gotten the opportunity to be free, much less to vote. This is not a politically correct deviancy from us. It is a recognition that we do not support the slave-owner mentality, no matter how sweet and nostalgic some neo-Confederates might cherish the memory.”
The Robert E. Lee Youth Center (sometimes referred to as the Women’s Center) is part of the Fort Brown Memorial Center at TSC and is available for rent for events.
Members of the local Neo-Confederate Harlingen chapter, Sons of Confederate Veterans, have been a big part of the backlash Castillo has received. Their chapter is known as Texas Division Sons of Confederate Veterans- 6th Brigade.
The SCV is a “voluntary association of male descendants of those who served the Confederate States of America in the Confederate Army or Navy,” as stated on their website.
While SCV are not recognized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a look at SCV’s social media shows them declaring protests against white-supremacy as “anti-confederate.”
“Hatewatch does not list heritage groups like the SCV… as hate groups, though they choose to spend their time and money valorizing the darker parts of our history,” as stated on the SPLC website. “Yet in their effort to gloss over the legacy of slavery in the South, these groups strengthen the appeal of Lost Cause mythology, opening the door for violent incidents spurred by the rhetoric of cynical individuals… when the public prominence of those icons is threatened.”
However, there is one, perhaps thin, tie between the SCV and the violent “Unite the Right” rally that took place in Charleston. Harold Raw Crews of North Carolina, one of the main organizers of the rally and leader of “League of the South,” is affiliated with the SCV, as reported by SPLC.
League of the South (LOS) is a “‘Southern Nationalist’ organization [and] purports to stand for ‘the southern people,’ which it defines as ‘white, Christians of Anglo-Celtic stock’ who live in a geographic area variously described as ‘the states of the Old Confederacy,’ ‘the Bible belt,’ and ‘white man’s land,’ SPLC reported.
Tension exists between white nationalist groups like LOS and Neo-Confederate groups like SCV. While SCV claims to not support racism, “racial cleansing,” or white supremacy on its website, LOS is loud on defending the white race in the U.S. According to SPLC, LOS sees SCV as the ‘’weak sister’ who cannot stand to be called a racist, anti-Semite, xenophobe, white supremacist.”
But while SCV may not be listed as a hate group, the fact that its members are able to claim affiliation to SCV and violent white supremacist groups like LOS demonstrate that protecting Confederate monuments cannot, in any occasion, be seen separate from the Nazis, so-called “alt-right,” and violent white supremacist groups who we saw marching with torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Virginia.
Earlier this week, the University of Texas at Austin removed three Confederate monuments after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Cities across the U.S. have taken similar actions to take down Confederate monuments from public spaces and renaming streets and buildings.
“Yes, we are a city full of history and we’re proud of it,” Castillo wrote in the petition that has been circulating for more than two years. “We can’t deny that we were part of the Confederacy. But what is the purpose of keeping the Jefferson Davis Memorial at Washington Park?”