Recently, the Baylor University Board of Regents passed a resolution denouncing slavery and acknowledging many of the founders’ links to the Confederacy. This also included the creation of a commission charged with making recommendations regarding historical monuments and buildings on the campus with ties to this slave-holding past. As an alumnus, I was proud that my university was being proactive in trying to meet the moment in our nation. However, I was also concerned about what this would mean for Judge Baylor, arguably the most iconic statue on campus and honoring Robert Emmett Bledsoe Baylor.
Let me start by saying that anybody who knows me is aware that I abhor using the qualifier that I used in the headline of this column. Like most people with brown skin whose roots have run through Texas and the Southwest for generations, my ancestry is mixed with Native American, Spanish and Mexican lineage of which I am very proud. I’d rather not use it as authority for an argument and would much rather be judged and identified by my rational thoughts and actions. But in 2020, though I hate it, I feel like the current culture requires it for two key reasons: First, because of heightened sensitivity around the country in regard to social justice issues, whether through fear of repercussion of so-called “cancel culture” or through genuine interest, people seem to want to hear solely from those of us who count as minorities. Second, I don’t want my voice drowned out by people who do not share my views. It can be difficult being a minority and speaking against a mainstream narrative. Worse, through personal experience, I can tell you that people will sometimes think of you as a “sellout.”
So let me say I was obsessed with Baylor University growing up, probably to the point of absurdity. I didn’t come from a long line of Baylor graduates, but after attending a football game at Floyd Casey Stadium, I was hooked. As such, my adolescent years were spent sitting in a double-wide, 12 miles outside Brady, Texas, listening to Baylor games on my dial-up radio with 80% of it static. You can imagine my excitement when I got accepted to become a Baylor Bear for the class of 2013.
For those who don’t know, the Judge Baylor statue is special for students. As tradition goes, freshmen will get their pictures taken on it when they first get to campus, then once more when they’re seniors, usually in cap and gown. The backdrop is the objectively stunning Pat Neff Hall, with the beautiful golden dome, overlooking Founders Mall. I cannot imagine why Baylor University would even consider taking that memory away from thousands of Baylor students of all skin tones, past, present and future. I believe the classic Judge Baylor photo is not just your everyday moment that a camera captured. Sure, you see a big grinning freshman or happy graduate, but you don’t see the moments that led up to it. The acceptance letter, the first football game or finals-cramming sessions. The picture is not just another ordinary selfie but rather a defining moment in a person’s life of academic accomplishment and joining in that “Baylor Line” we sing about so proudly. Judge Baylor was wrong about slavery, but he was right about his vision for a Baptist institution for higher learning.
It’s understandable that Baylor wants to add context to these statues. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing the past. I propose a column with a wide granite flat top, similar to those you see in museums, with all the information on R.E.B. Baylor. Include everything, his role in founding the oldest continually operating university in the state, along with his leadership in the Republic of Texas and the Confederacy. Like it or not, he is our namesake and, like the institution which bears his name, he was a work in progress. Today Baylor students of all races and ethnicities happily snap photos with the statue. So unless Baylor plans on renaming the university, we need to learn how to live with it. Where I come from, you stick by your family. You criticize their faults and learn from their mistakes, but you stick by them.
Here’s what I hope the Baylor Commission on Historic Campus Representations and the board of regents understand. That photo-op also means something to those who do not have fair skin. Perhaps even more. Some of our families sacrificed a lot for us to attend one of the most prestigious schools in the state and become a Baylor graduate. Please don’t take one of the coolest traditions away from us because you might fear the current political climate.
More than a man
I can’t speak for everyone, but when I sat with the statue of Judge Baylor I wasn’t worshiping the man or revering his white supremacy. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that he lived during the era of slavery and was misguided by it. But today I do think about how Judge Baylor and the other founders, with all their many flaws, did have the fortitude to carry through on a vision of higher education in the state of Texas. The statue may be the likeness of Judge Baylor but it is not a man. Rather, it represents the sacrifices made by those who through the decades helped pave the way for my opportunity to be a proud alumnus today, and to wear the green and gold.
So I ask the Baylor family to help me fight to keep the Judge Baylor statue where it is; not in a museum or hidden in some obscure corner of campus. Tearing down this statue will not make our history pure. It’s important it’s left right where it is. That way students from all 50 states and all across the world, of different races, ethnicities and nationalities, can have that defining experience. And perhaps with context it will mean even more. We are all imperfect people — works in progress, sitting on a statue of an imperfect man, happy to be a part of the Baylor family. And in my humble opinion, there ain’t a prettier sight in all of Texas.
I humbly ask all alumni to contact the president, board of regents and university leadership and let them know your opinion. Do it daily. Get fellow alumni involved as well. Don’t stop till we know the Judge Baylor statue and our history are safe and snug in place.
Greg Torres, a graduate of Baylor University, Class of 2012, and Texas A&M School of Law in 2016, is a criminal defense attorney with the firm of David Sloane in Fort Worth.