A white veteran, a black veteran and a Mexican veteran stood behind the old Confederate soldier statue on the courthouse lawn in downtown Denton, debating its meaning on Super Bowl Sunday.
It’s a familiar debate. The white veteran says the statue simply memorializes those poor Denton County farmers who were drafted to fight in the Civil War. The black veteran points out that it’s a reminder of oppression that continues long after slavery ended. The Mexican veteran claims it honors not only soldiers who fought to keep their brothers and sisters enslaved but also the soldiers' treasonous actions.
A small group of protesters joined them, surrounded by media and a heavy law enforcement presence. Sharpshooters positioned themselves atop buildings. Uniformed officers stood near street corners, at the courthouse and on its lawn, and across the street in front of businesses frequented by locals and tourists. They all looked ready for a gunfight, but most of the peaceful protesters didn’t appear armed.
They came together to protest the decision by Denton County's citizen’s monument committee to keep the old Confederate soldier statue but with an additional plaque and informational videos about slavery. The Denton Record-Chronicle reported shortly after the announcement Thursday that county commissioners were skeptical of the idea.
“I think having electronics out in the weather may have operational problems,” Commissioner Hugh Coleman told the paper. “If we do this, we want to do it right. I don’t want it constantly breaking down.”
Nearly everyone around these parts knows the old Confederate soldier statue isn’t going anywhere. It’s been part of Denton County history and culture for as long as anyone can remember. County Judge Mary Horn hasn’t kept her opposition to its removal a secret, either. It takes three yes votes from commissioners to remove it, but even the protesters agree that as long as Horn is in charge, removing it is like trying to get ice in hell.
Still, the protesters show up even when the rest of their social media support group stayed home late Sunday afternoon. Some blamed the Super Bowl, others the heavy police presence. Many were familiar faces, some of whom appeared in the past to join Willie Hudspeth in a protest he’s been doing periodically for the past 20 years.
“You have to get people to come,” says Hudspeth, who’s seeking the county judge seat. “That’s the American way — if you get voters, and it’s election time. ... They’re scared to death of me anyways.”
Hudspeth isn’t an imposing man in his T-shirt that reads, “Love not hate makes America great.” In his early 70s, he walks slightly bent by age. A civil rights activist, he began lobbying commissioners in the late '90s to repair the water fountains on the front of the Confederate monument.
They were never repaired. Horn said the water fountains never worked, as if the United Daughters of the Confederacy unveiled a piece of art that didn’t work in 1918 in the Jim Crow era. Hudspeth began asking for the statue's removal, often showing up alone Sunday nights with various signs that seemed to share a similar message: “Remove the monument. God said to love everybody.”
Hudspeth recalls his previous commissioners court appearances over the years.
“I get my four minutes, and they shut me down. But this is not what they plan for. Heck, I didn’t plan for it either. This you got to deal with,” he says.
County commissioners formed the citizen’s monument committee a few months ago in response to media attention, hours of testimony and Hudspeth's determination. They charged committee members to figure out what to do with the monument. They already changed the wording of the plague several years ago. Standing a few feet away from the old Confederate soldier statue, it now reads, “a reminder of historic events and is intended as a memorial to Denton County citizens who sacrificed themselves for the community” and “God created all men equal.”
The protesters want the monument taken down and moved inside the Courthouse-on-the-Square, which the state considers a museum. They want its Jim Crow history explained. Some put together a report and showed up at commissioners court demanding action.
The committee was made up of 15 people. Hudspeth was one. So was Paul Meltzer, who’s seeking the Denton City Council Place 6 seat. It was made up mostly of white men, and protesters say it didn’t adequately represent the community in regard to people younger than 35 or identifying as LGBT or Asian-American.
Commissioners appointed a few women, one of whom was black and said her forefather fought for the South in the Civil War. Protesters pointed out he was probably drafted, like the Denton County farmers.
Gary Moore seemed to be the lone supporter of the statue there Sunday. An older veteran, he proudly displayed it on his black ball cap. His debate with committee members Hudspeth and Alfredo Sanchez didn’t last very long. He reiterated a similar argument the county judge has used in the past: The Daughters of the Confederacy erected the statue as a memorial to the farmers.
“They weren’t being racist,” he says.
Moore says he first heard about Hudspeth’s protests about two or three years ago. His son was home from Texas A&M, and they drove from Lewisville to check it out. He didn’t debate Hudspeth then, but his son, he says, did. It wasn’t clear who won the debate, but he says they finished it shaking hands.
“And that’s how you’re supposed to resolve these things,” he says. “It’s not this issue about throwing things around saying, ‘Here, let’s go get a crowbar and jack this thing up.’”
Standing not far from the monument, Moore recalls a young protester who almost gave him a reasonable explanation about why the statue needed to be removed until another protester started repeating, “It’s the most racist thing.”
“She was loud about it,” he says. “But I’m really trying to understand it.”
Hudspeth understands it all too well. He understands it better than the other protesters, a majority of whom are white. He’s been having to justify his existence to white people for 70 years. He had to demand his right to vote and to drink from the same water fountain and use the same bathroom as white people.
Alhough he’s running for county judge, Hudspeth speaks like his challenger, County Commissioner Andy Eads, has already won, and he worries what will happen when Horn finally steps down after the election.
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“Mary Horn is just evil,” he says. “I think the plan is she’ll delay it past the election. They’ll have Eads in there. They’ll just put it off.”
But Hudspeth says he won’t stop.
He is willing to compromise. He says he’ll stop talking about it if they turn on the water fountains that once were for whites only.
“My granddaughter … I’m going to let her be the first one to drink,” he says.