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We Need to Talk About Sully

And it won’t be fun for anyone.

Author’s note: In the time between writing and publishing this, Sully’s statue was vandalized. While I personally wouldn’t graffiti a dick onto something I don’t like as a form of protest, the statue will ultimately be cleaned without issue and we will still have to talk to each other about why it’s there if we ever expect to stay connected to one another as Aggies. Gig ‘em and God bless.

Texas A&M sells itself as an anomaly—a special place with special people who will treat you like family just for being there. We who call ourselves Aggies spew out platitudes like Aggies take care of Aggies and there’s a spirit can ne’er be told like they’re God-given scripture.

We forget that they’re remnants of a culture created by thousands of young men dropped off at a military school in the middle of Timbuktu, Texas, with nothing better to do than create and carry out a series of increasingly elaborate rituals we now call our proudest traditions.

That was Old Army, and it has been dead for some time. Though most Ags will tell you it died the year after they graduated, the truth is that James Earl Rudder killed it around 1968. Desegregating Texas A&M, making the Corps non-mandatory and admitting women slowly, but surely removed the frat-like culturally monolithic conditions by which a bunch of bored white farmers could create something as uniquely absurd as, say, Elephant Walk.

History would prove all of these reforms right in the end, but they earned Rudder plenty of criticism and loathing from then-current and former students alike. Preserving what made Texas A&M special came before anything, they said. But Rudder was notoriously good at shaking off the influence of the old guard in the interest of radically expanding the university in scope, accessibility and prestige.

I don’t know where Texas A&M would be if he didn’t kill Old Army, but it sure wouldn’t be the place my friends, family, and I have come to love today.

Without the conditions that created our oldest traditions and practices, Aggies are essentially special because we want to be.

Structurally, Texas A&M is almost identical to every other large public university in the country, including the one down the road that we still love to hate out of habit. Culturally, we cling to what made us unique, and we’re often right to do so. Even if we have trouble distinguishing between which parts are important to our soul (attending Silver Taps and Muster, respecting the MSC) and which parts aren’t (the ongoing Booing vs. Hissing debate), our traditions give us a sense of community that we might not have otherwise.

Collectively viewing Texas A&M as special, though, creates blind spots. We often think we are exempt from whatever maladies plague everyone on the outside. We think we’re above the fray.

Sure, every other university is having a heated debate about race or gender or income inequality, but why should we have one here? This is Aggieland. We all get along fine. Stop bringing in unnecessary trouble. Shut up and go to class. Highway 6 runs both ways. Take it somewhere they give a damn.

When it comes to Aggies discussing social issues, the prevailing ideology is “out of sight, out of mind.” If I haven’t experienced it, it doesn’t happen. If it does happen, it’s not that bad. And if it is that bad, then that’s just human nature. You will find that over at t.u. just as much as you will here. Texas A&M has been called one of the most conservative public universities in the country, but I’d posit it’s one of the most politically apathetic.

That is until an outside force pushes the issue.

We saw this in 2017 when a white nationalist came to speak in the MSC, a building dedicated to fallen Aggies, a lot of whom died fighting a white nationalist empire. Richard Spencer didn’t divide the white and minority communities to the extent he probably wanted, but he did split the student body into two sides: those who wanted to stay in their dorms and wait until the racist on their campus went away and those who wanted to gather to vehemently and resoundingly reject his evil beliefs.

That divide came and went with Spencer himself. It helped that, no matter what they considered to be the right course of reaction, almost everybody could agree that Spencer was a racist douchebag. The event itself attracted other racist douchebags, but not enough to send alarm bells throughout the community. Everyone could go to class the next day and the day after until they didn’t have to think about it anymore. Well, not everyone, of course.

Hate may not be an Aggie value, but “not having to think about it” sure is.

Let’s talk about Sully.

Your blood is already boiling. Some New Army nitwit on a keyboard is really about to try and tell you that Lawrence Sullivan Ross, the savior of Texas A&M, doesn’t deserve a statue on campus because of some bogus claim that he was a racist. We don’t even know if he owned slaves! There is no evidence that he was in the Ku Klux Klan! He founded Prairie View A&M! You’ve been putting pennies on Sully’s shoes since you first stepped foot on this campus, and by God, you’re so tired of being told that everything that once gave you joy is problematic.

But this isn’t a plain argument for taking Sully’s statue down. This is about the argument itself. This is about how, when I pitched this story to an editor, he encouraged me to write it but warned me that I might get doxxed. This is about how, when I told my friend I was going to write about the conversation surrounding Sul Ross, the first message I got back was simply “Godspeed.” This is about the truth and how much of it Aggies are allowed to address before being mocked and/or excommunicated from the maroon and white faithful.

In 2018, Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp wrote a letter in response to a Battalion article that claimed Sul Ross had “ties to white supremacy and committed many gratuitous acts of violence against people of color.” Sharp wrote that the claims were “totally wrong, and in fact, the reverse is true!” He brought up Ross’ founding of the aforementioned Prairie View A&M and a facility for deaf and blind black children as proof that Sul Ross was a friend of black people, and his statue honored a “lifetime of service to ALL TEXANS and ALL AGGIES.”

It is true that Ross was instrumental in the founding of both institutions. It is also true that, without Sul Ross, Texas A&M as we know it would not exist. But the initial claims were not that Ross never did something helpful for black people or Texas A&M. They were that he had ties to white supremacy, and he committed gratuitous acts of violence against people of color. These claims are true as well.

Ross was a general for the Confederate States of America, whose constitution, unlike the United States’, included a clause specifically protecting the right to own black people as slaves. Thus, he has, in fact, at least one tie to white supremacy.

And as William B. Dobak described in his book “Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops 1862-1867,” Ross led a charge against a garrison of recently freed slaves-turned-Union-soldiers that Ross himself reported as such:

“The negroes after the first fire broke in wild disorder, each seeming intent on nothing but making his escape. Being mounted on mules, however, but a few of them got away. The road all the way to Yazoo City was literally strewed with their bodies.”

Whether that attack or Ross’ other attacks against Comanches before can be described as “gratuitous” is subjective. But he did commit documented acts of violence against people of color. In the incident above, he slaughtered men who were fighting to abolish an institution that kept generations of their people stripped of human dignity and freedom. But hey, at least he founded Prairie View later to make up for it.

I know what you’re going to say. All men have sinned, you can find dirt on anyone in history if you look hard enough, etc. That’s true. Except for Jesus and maybe Mr. Rogers, there are reasons to “cancel” almost every historical figure by today’s standards. Hell, if we were to bring Rudder back and show him around campus, I’d bet a shiny $10 bill he wouldn’t take kindly to the presence of an LGBTQ+ Pride Center in the building next to his eponymous plaza.

But therein lies the key miscommunication: Both proponents and opponents of Sully’s statue talk as if the debate is over whether the man could be considered a racist individual. They go back and forth at length bringing up things he did or wrote and argue whether he was in the KKK.

The argument for removing his statue is not about whether he was a racist. Ross was an undisputed active participant and leader in a regime that fought in no small part to uphold slavery. The argument, then, is whether or not that disqualifies him from being glorified by a university that proclaims to reject racism and white supremacy of any kind.

Admittedly, the argument is not as cut and dried as it was for the Jefferson Davis statue at t.u. Davis had no tangible connection to the University of Texas. His statue was erected on its campus in 1933 with the sole intention of honoring the “lost cause” of the Confederacy in a time in which Jim Crow laws ran rampant. The statue of Davis was removed from its original place in 2015 and moved to a museum on campus, where folks could take in Davis and his statues’ complex history in full.

Ross’ statue is different. The man had a real connection to the university. His statue stands at the center of the center of Aggieland. The chorus of the so-corny-it-still-makes-you-cry Granger Smith classic “We Bleed Maroon” begins with “so put a penny on Sully.” There is not one promotional video the university has put out that does not include a shot of his face or his shoes. It would be unreasonable to expect Aggies not to get defensive when the statue is challenged.

It would also be unreasonable to expect black Aggies not to challenge the statue.

KBTX published a story a few days ago about the most recent petition to remove Ross’ statue. One commenter gave a typical rebuttal: “Yes let’s just erase history and pretend that it never happened. History is to be learned from...not erased.”

This is true. There is no erasing Ross or the pivotal contributions he made to Texas A&M from the university’s history. Anyone who would go back and downplay his role in this school’s development is as deluded as anyone who would downplay his role in upholding the institution of slavery beforehand.

The decision that Texas A&M will have to face will have nothing to do with adding or removing bits and parts from Ross’ history or the university’s history. The decision will be about whether his legacy—his full legacy—still reflects what we as Aggies stand for today to the extent that we would continue to lionize his image in the heart of our campus.

Over and over, we have decided that he reflects our university and our values. In doing so, we tell our many of our black Aggie brethren that one’s complicity in slavery—a system that runs off the essential belief that black people are less than human—does not exempt one from being considered a good Ag as long as they exhibit decent character and do enough good deeds for the university afterward.

We can continue to make that decision for as long as we want, but we cannot pretend that it is a passive one, or that it will be perceived as such.

Texas A&M is not an anomaly. It is neither a conservative utopia nor a newfound liberal breeding ground. It is a place where nearly 70,000 people from around the state, nation and globe migrate each year to learn and secure better economic opportunities. It is where some people make enough good friends and have enough good times that they feel compelled to return so they can walk through Academic Plaza and remember when their whole world was a little college town built alongside a set of old tracks.

To many, that world is precious. It deserves to be preserved and defended lest invaders from outside come and take everything that makes it special. They don’t want their favorite traditions amended or their favorite places bulldozed away in the name of progress. They want it all to stand as it is for as long as they can help it.

Because if you take down Sully, you take down the day a freshman was so nervous about an exam that he unloaded six rolls of pennies at Sully’s feet. You take down the night a sophomore girl went to Silver Taps for the first time and all she could make out in the dark was his outline—an image she can now return to in their head like she had captured it on film. For many, you don’t just take down a statue of a dead white dude. You take down a piece of home.

We’ve killed Old Army a thousand times over since Rudder. We’ve made College Station completely unrecognizable compared to how it looked when most current students were born. Parents are bringing kids to football games who have never known a time when we played t.u. as our rival. My parents took me to the last Bonfire to ever burn when I was a year old. I graduated six months ago.

We can’t keep talking to each other like this place means the same for all of us, or that the attachments we have to Texas A&M are reason enough to never change it for the better. In this time in which we are all being asked what we, the people are willing to do—collectively—to create a more perfect union and establish justice in our country, Aggies can’t choose to just not think about it anymore.

At least, not forever.