Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The park in Texas that Trump is checking out has a really interesting past

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Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas, is now a place where state forces gather. It’s the center of a disagreement with the national government and shows problems at the border.

Ex-President Donald Trump visited the park with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and criticized the immigration policies of the Biden administration.

We’ve heard a lot about the legal fight over immigration in this border city and the Republican candidate’s efforts to make border enforcement stricter.

But there’s an interesting story about this park that many don’t know.

The 47-acre park near the Rio Grande is named after a Confederate military leader who went to Mexico in 1865 instead of surrendering to Union troops.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency report about the park mentions that it was named after General Joseph Orville Shelby, also known as the “undefeated rebel.”

Historian Jeremi Suri shared thoughts on the situation, pointing out the irony. He wrote about Shelby and other Confederate exiles in his recent book. Most people might not know Shelby’s story, but Suri sees a connection between this moment and Shelby’s lesser-known part in American history.

Suri, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, mentions the importance of these exiles. He believes they legitimize discussions about secession, essentially challenging the federal government and asserting their own way.

According to Suri, the park’s name reflects the current dispute more than arguments in the immigration debate. Naming it after Shelby, instead of prominent figures like Martin Luther King Jr. or Cesar Chavez, signifies a power play. The irony is that this assertion of power has now become militarized in that space, he says.

In 2010, historian Anthony Arthur described Shelby’s departure from Eagle Pass in a dramatic way, highlighting a moment where the Confederate battle flag was plunged into the Rio Grande. Local historian Jeff Taylor Sr. mentions rumors about the flag being retrieved, contributing to Eagle Pass being dubbed the “grave of the Confederacy.” The city embraced this history, with a painting of the scene displayed in City Hall and reenactments taking place.

Taylor, who knows and shares the city’s history, admits that most Eagle Pass residents are unfamiliar with Shelby and the park’s history. When asked, many respond with confusion, wondering if Shelby played football with the local high school team, showing a lack of awareness.

In Mexico, there was a group of Confederate soldiers who were sent away. Eagle Pass later got a reputation as a place connected to the Confederacy, but for Shelby and his troops in 1865, their mission continued. The French emperor, Maximilian I, who ruled Mexico back then, didn’t let them fight for him but gave them land for a colony. This colony, called La Carlota after the emperor’s wife, was for the exiled Confederate soldiers.

Their time in Mexico was short. By 1867, when Maximilian was executed, Shelby and most of his followers went back to the US. Shelby claimed he was a hero for not surrendering to the Union.

In 1868, President Andrew Johnson forgave all Confederate soldiers. Years later, President Grover Cleveland made Shelby a U.S. marshal. It’s not clear when or why the Eagle Pass park got named after Shelby.

According to FEMA, the park was made in the late 1990s after floods in the area. If that’s when it got its name, it could be linked to a rise in neo-Confederate groups in the US around the same time, but it’s uncertain if there’s a connection.

Some people who fight for causes notice a link between what’s going on now and the park’s name. Last month, the Texas Attorney General said that state authorities took control of Shelby Park from the city “for law-enforcement and disaster-relief reasons.” They claim they had to act because a lot of migrants came to the area. They say federal authorities can still use the park for medical emergencies, but the Biden administration disagrees in court.

Last year, Texas sued the Biden administration for removing razor wire at the border. The Supreme Court recently said Border Patrol agents can take down razor wire in Eagle Pass as part of Texas’ security plan while the legal fight goes on.

Homeland Security wants Texas to allow “full access” to the border, saying immigration enforcement is a federal job. Governor Greg Abbott and other Texas leaders promise not to give in.

“It’s kind of funny that the park ended up being here,” Suri mentions. “No one really planned that.”

However, some local activists, like Amerika Garcia Grewal, believe there’s a clear connection between the park’s name and what’s happening there now.

“It makes sense that a symbol of racism is all wrapped up in sharp wire. It’s like showing the hate people have,” she says.

Garcia Grewal is part of Border Vigil, a group that meets in Shelby Park to honor migrants who died in the Rio Grande. Before the recent takeover of the park, the group put many crosses in a field there to remember those believed to have died along the US-Mexico border in 2023.

“There were a lot of crosses covering more than half an acre. It hits hard to think that so many people died because of human actions. Our policies are basically causing people to die,” she says.

In recent times, Garcia Grewal and others asked officials to change names of places in Eagle Pass honoring Confederate leaders. A school named after Robert E. Lee got a new name for the 2021-2022 school year with a unanimous vote by the school board.

However, the name Shelby Park remains unchanged. Some people in Eagle Pass don’t see a reason to change it. Taylor believes altering names to erase history instead of learning from it isn’t the right approach.

“That was history,” he says. “We shouldn’t forget it.”

Garcia Grewal, who grew up playing in Shelby Park, now desires a new name due to recent issues in the park. She thinks it’s a name associated with hate and feels it’s more important than ever to change it.

It’s unclear if upcoming festivals in the area will proceed as planned. Community members and advocates in a recent news conference called for state officials to return control of the park to the city’s people.

“They’ve taken over our publicly funded park – our park, our history, our culture. That’s where we gather. That’s our green space. That’s where we connect to the river, and we can’t access it,” says Eagle Pass resident Jessie Fuentes. “I want my park back. I want my river back.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has conducted border security briefings at the park, and he plans to build an 80-acre military base nearby. Currently, the park is a focal point of his administration’s efforts and a flashpoint in the national immigration debate.

After nearly 160 years, Shelby Park, named after the Confederate general who refused to surrender, is still fenced off with gates and razor wire. This story includes details about former President Donald Trump’s planned visit. CNN’s Alayna Treene, Rosa Flores, and Sara Weisfeldt contributed to this report.


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