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In Small-Town North Texas, Some Confederate Monuments Still Stand Tall

In Small-Town North Texas, Some Confederate Monuments Still Stand Tall
Mark Graham
click to enlarge James Henderson has been fighting to move the Confederate monument from in front of the court building in Kaufmann. - MARK GRAHAM
James Henderson has been fighting to move the Confederate monument from in front of the court building in Kaufmann.
Mark Graham
Growing up Black in Kaufman, James Henderson rarely thought about the two-story Confederate monument outside the county courthouse. He didn't care about it much. He didn't really understand what it was. As he grew older and learned about the country's history, his feelings changed over the years, but the final straw came last summer.

Henderson, 44, now works as an investigator in the Kaufman County Public Defender's Office. He walks past the statue several times a week. One day in June, a client of his, a Black man from out of state, asked a question that hit him hard. The man wanted to know how he could expect fair treatment in a building that had a symbol of slavery and segregation perched right out front.

Henderson thought hard for a moment, but he ultimately agreed that the statue's removal was long overdue. “Not in front of a courthouse,” he told the Observer. “Not in front of our justice center, a place that’s supposed to be applying justice. It’s right on our front porch.”

Henderson knew many in Kaufman wouldn’t see things his way. He grew up in town and has considered its mostly conservative residents neighbors for much of his life. Five generations ago, his ancestors lived in Egypt, an all-Black community once located 12 miles southeast of the city. That’s why he feels confident saying the local mantra might as well be “white is right.”

Split in two by Highway 175, Kaufman sits some 33 miles southeast of Dallas and covers less than nine square miles of land. More than half its 7,300 residents are white, around 1 in 10 is Black. For the last six presidential elections, a majority of Kaufman County residents voted for Republican candidates. In November 2020, former President Donald Trump received around two-thirds of the county’s votes.

Crowned with a rifle-toting soldier, the statue came up in 1911, more than four decades after the Civil War ended. It was sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a hereditary association whose founding members hoped building memorials would "tell of the glorious fight of the greatest odds a nation ever faced." The statue in Kaufman has moved a couple of times, but it's stood outside the current county courthouse since 1956.

In late May, some 970 miles north of Kaufman, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. Protests fanned out from New York to Los Angeles, and demonstrators renewed calls for Confederate monuments to be removed from public spaces. In some places, the city sent in construction crews and took down the statues. Elsewhere, protesters refused to wait on their officials, instead knocking down the monuments themselves.

By August, at least 45 monuments and flags nationwide had been removed and relocated, several schools and colleges were renamed, and roads and trails were stripped of their Confederate-linked names, according to the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center. Altogether, the number of Confederate-linked monuments toppled, symbols removed and names dropped has reached 168.

The unrest inspired Henderson and a small group of like-minded locals to push back against the conservative majority. For his part, Henderson never called for the Kaufman statue to be destroyed. He only wanted it moved away from the courthouse. First, he tried to persuade local officials to get behind him, but those conversations got him nowhere. Later, he teamed up with friends and fellow community members to support the removal.

Eston Williams, a retired minister and local Democratic Party volunteer, announced a march for the morning of Saturday, June 20. Williams, who is white, asked his fellow townspeople to join him and others in the half-hour march.

But almost as soon as Williams put out the call, a flood of threats and angry messages started to pour in. Hoping to avoid violence, he canceled the rally. “The Kaufman police have called in the state troopers and the sheriff’s department because they want to be sure everyone is safe,” he told the local inforney.com news site. “If they are worried, so are we.”

Henderson knew those fears well. He describes Kaufman as “the gateway to East Texas,” a region where lynching and Klan activity aren't merely historical facts, but he decided to march on his own. He set out that Saturday morning, making his way from Shannon Park to the downtown square and live-streaming his one-person protest on Facebook. “This is a cause, a strong cause, so I am marching,” he told his viewers, who eventually topped 2,000.

“This is a cause, a strong cause, so I am marching." - James Henderson, Kaufman resident

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“I’m not marching as a Republican,” he continued. “I’m not marching as a Democrat. I’m marching as a Black man in Kaufman County, Texas. This has gone on for so long.”

He told his Facebook audience he would march silently from that point on. Along the way, a couple of people joined. “So, I’ll let y’all carry on with me,” he explained in the livestream. “I want y’all to come with me. I want y’all to see what’s going on. But for me this is a silent protest. My presence — my presence alone — is my statement.”

But when Henderson arrived at the courthouse, he spotted a crowd. A couple of dozen counter-protesters had gathered despite the original march having been called off. State troopers had spread out all about the area. Confederate flags were lashed to trucks parked on the square. Some supporters of the statues had shown up armed with rifles or sidearms. A few people encouraged him. Others heckled him. Crouched in the bed of a pickup, one man held a sign accusing Black Lives Matter of racism.

click to enlarge Protestors from both sides came head-to-head in Kaufman in June. - SAM HARMON/KAUFMAN HERALD
Protestors from both sides came head-to-head in Kaufman in June.
Sam Harmon/Kaufman Herald
Ending the march, Henderson flipped the camera back to his face and thanked his Facebook audience. He suggested the town have a broader conversation about the statue, whether at church gatherings or in town hall meetings. “I’m not shutting up,” he said. “I’m not backing down. I’m not going to quit.”

Larger, more progressive cities like Dallas and Denton had already decided to scrap some of their Confederate statues. But in Kaufman and similarly conservative small towns across North Texas, that goal was part of a much steeper uphill battle. In recent years, the far right has turned Confederate monuments into a rallying cry: after Dylann Roof murdered nine Black worshipers in a church in June 2015; when white nationalists and neo-Nazis held a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017; and as anti-statue protesters demonstrated last summer following Floyd’s killing.

“It really has been a continuous acceleration on their part in terms of pushing back against the larger society's awakening to what these symbols of the Confederacy mean,” the SPLC’s Lecia Brooks told the Observer. “Every time these things happen, there is some kind of resistance and groundswell that comes from the far right.”

Brooks added, "This is really hard to fight against in conservative states, let alone the smaller municipalities or towns."

**


From Weatherford to Sherman, from Tyler to Paris, protesters spent the summer pouring into town squares and calling for the removal of Confederate monuments. Organizers led people into the street, others lobbied local officials and some brawled with their political opponents, but statues still speck the map of North Texas.

In June, about two dozen people rallied in Sherman, about an hour north of Dallas and home to one of the first Confederate monuments built on courthouse property. The demonstrators gathered signatures for a petition demanding the statue’s removal, while counter-protesters circulated a separate petition demanding the opposite, according to the local News 12.

The following month, the Parker County Commissioners Court voted unanimously to leave the local Confederate statue at the county courthouse in Weatherford. But protests against the monument attracted the attention of a band of far-right counter-demonstrators, including militia members. Punches were thrown, knives were pulled and guns were waved. (Residents have recently asked the City Council to move the statue, but it still stands.)

“I had lots of folks tell me that they don’t want it removed." - Brandon Bell, Lamar County judge

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In August, protesters tried their luck in Paris, a 25,000-person city situated some 98 miles northeast of Dallas. They gathered more than 2,500 signatures and delivered a petition to the courthouse, but they were swiftly turned away. Speaking to News 12, Lamar County Judge Brandon Bell insisted he had no reason to bring the issue to a vote. “It has been on the agenda fairly recently, and it’s just not a very popular idea in Lamar County,” he said. “I had lots of folks tell me that they don’t want it removed.”

Later that month, protesters in nearby Gainesville landed in legal trouble for stepping off the sidewalks and onto the street during a march against the local Confederate statue, which stands on the corner outside the Cooke County Courthouse. The police department charged three protest organizers with Class B misdemeanors.

For his recently published book Down Along with That Devil's Bones, journalist Connor Towne O'Neill followed protests in four towns in Alabama and Tennessee between 2015 and 2018. As movements to remove statues gained steam, so, too, did rallies in support of the monuments. Many pro-monument demonstrations drew the participation of far-right and neo-Confederate groups. 

"I think the hard-right folks see those statues as weathervanes almost," O'Neill told the Observer. "There's this fear of replacement, a belief that this is a white country, and a fear of what will happen as demographics shift."

The way O'Neill sees it, the more Confederate monuments are in the public eye, the more hardline right-wing groups will latch onto them. "It's hard to bet against the possibility that these fights over American symbols won't spill over into physical confrontations in the present," he said.

**

click to enlarge Local attorney Blinn Combs has been supporting Henderson. - MARK GRAHAM
Local attorney Blinn Combs has been supporting Henderson.
Mark Graham
Back in Kaufman, Henderson and others tried to keep up the momentum, but backlash came quickly. Some locals claimed he had invited antifa — shorthand for the loosely knit anti-fascist movement — to town. Others called on the Kaufman County Public Defender’s Office to fire him, while some even threatened his life, he said.

Henderson said he responded the way he expects most people would: He installed security cameras at home, sent the local police screenshots of violent messages he received online and continued protesting.

He found support from a local attorney named Blinn Combs, with whom he’s been friends since they grew up two blocks away from another. Combs, 43, can trace his family’s lineage in the Kaufman area back at least four generations. Like Henderson, he wanted the monument gone as soon as possible.

One day last summer, Combs, who is white, was driving near the town square when he saw a small protest shaping up outside the county courthouse. The young demonstrators were few in number, but they had Black Lives Matters placards, a fact that gave Combs some hope. “Usually if you saw protesters at the courthouse, they were Tea Partiers,” he told the Observer.

“I didn’t think there was a big chance we’d get this done at first bat,” Combs said, “but that there were kids out, that they had some awareness … that was a sufficient motivation to press forward a little bit.”

The pair teamed up, along with a handful of locals who opposed the statue. Still, they knew the odds weren’t in their favor, not in a county as conservative as Kaufman.

Take what happened two years ago. Shortly after the Dallas City Council voted to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in February 2019, an especially graphic billboard appeared on Highway 175 in Kemp, a small city tucked away in Kaufman County’s southeastern corner. Not far from a daycare and a church, the billboard showed a cartoon Confederate soldier urinating on the Dallas skyline.

In July, a page called "Confederate Kaufman" appeared on Facebook. The page's first few posts were about the local monument, but it quickly resorted to age-old conspiracy theories about a communist plot to overthrow America. Later, the posts became personal, often naming Henderson and Combs. The page's administrator did not reply to the Observer's request for comment.

Around the same time the page popped up, local resident Jennifer Robinson circulated a petition online in support of the monument. “More than 150 years ago, brave men left tearful families to fight a war that pitted brother against brother — each acting at the direction of their governments,” the petition read. “Those families left behind struggled to survive, while still providing supplies to the men that had gone to protect their homes and firesides from an invader intent on their destruction.”

The Observer was unable to reach Robinson for an interview, but in July, she provided a written statement to The Dallas Morning News. “As a lover of history and a member of multiple organizations engaged in the preservation of various aspects of history," she wrote, "I am heartbroken that tangible pieces of history, such as the Kaufman Cenotaph, are being removed, and even destroyed, in the name of modern political warfare.”

Meanwhile, Combs joined the protests and played his part online. In August, he created a rival Facebook page named De-Confederate Kaufman, borrowing the name from a pair of Facebook and Twitter pages called "De-Confederate Austin," which a friend of his from graduate school had started. Combs initially conceived the Facebook page as “a place to strategize,” but he soon decided it served an educational purpose. “I learned that a lot of people are just so ignorant about the issue that you have to do some work toward basic Civil War deprogramming,” he said.

"I learned that a lot of people are just so ignorant about the issue that you have to do some work toward basic Civil War deprogramming." - Blinn Combs, Kaufman resident

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In July, the Kaufman County Commissioners Court decided to create a body of citizens tasked with researching public opinion. It was dubbed the Citizens Monument Commission and included 15 members, three appointed by each of the five individuals who sit on the commissioners court. Meetings would be held, residents would be surveyed and a recommendation would be delivered to the county.

Both Henderson and Combs felt skeptical, but Henderson joined the committee. Still, he thought it was a “dog and pony show,” while Combs understood it as a way for the county to buy time. But Kaufman County Judge Hal Richards says it was the best available option given that all five commissioners are white men middle-aged or older. "The whole point was to get us out of it," he told the Observer.

In late August, the second rally included around a dozen people participating in educational presentations and another march to the statue. That demonstration drew a few counter-protesters, men draped in Confederate flags, but it ended without incident.

Later on, in September, Combs wrote an impassioned op-ed in the Kaufman Herald. In the article, he placed Kaufman County’s particular history in the country’s broader story. He argued that Southern myths about post-Civil War reconstruction erased more history than they preserved. “Our Kaufman County Courthouse should embody our civic commitment to justice and equality before the law,” he wrote. “Let us remember our actual past, and build better monuments for our future.”

Henderson couldn’t make the third and final rally, in October, but Combs and a few others showed up. By that point, tension was high in town, and fewer people were willing to go out and protest against the statue.

When Combs arrived, he was shocked to see a more worrisome band of counter-demonstrators than he had encountered at the previous protests. Some wore tactical vests and militia-like garb, one even had flash grenades, but many of them came armed with pistols and assault rifles. “It was a pretty disappointing event,” Combs recalled. “There was a lot of hostility. A lot of people who were our standard allies felt like the issue was getting too hot. Threats were going around, and there were assault rifles … It wasn’t a fully idle threat.”

**

click to enlarge The Confederate monument in Kaufman. - MARK GRAHAM
The Confederate monument in Kaufman.
Mark Graham
Throughout late summer and fall, many Kaufman residents participated in several community meetings held by the Citizens Monument Commission. Some argued for the statue to be relocated to a museum. Others made the case for preserving the monument.

By early November, the Citizens Monument Commission had held several meetings and concluded their survey. Of the 135,000 people who call Kaufman County home, the commission had surveyed 554 individuals. The group declined to deliver a recommendation to the commissioners, but it did present its findings: that county residents “overwhelmingly” supported leaving the Confederate monument untouched.

The Kaufman County Commissioners Court held its final meeting on the matter on Nov. 24. The hearing allowed citizens to offer their opinions before the commissioners decided what to do. Each person who showed up to voice their opinion that day was white. Each insisted the statue stay put.

In a video of the Nov. 24 meeting, Bill Hart spoke first. A Forney resident, Hart had served as co-chair of the Citizens Monument Committee. The way he saw it, removing the statue was no better than rewriting history books. He compared the prospect to the North Vietnamese communist regime renaming landmarks and forcing South Vietnamese into reeducation camps. “It’s kind of a similar deal,” he said.

Local attorney Rob Jones started off citing a statistic: 75% of the county’s voters wanted the statue kept put. “The evidence was overwhelmingly that the people of Kaufman County want this monument to remain,” he said.

Next up was Jennifer Robinson, who stepped up to the podium wearing a bright orange church hat. She raised her voice at times, pleading with the commissioners to leave the statue be. She said her job and life had both been threatened over her support for the statue. “There is a Marxist agenda in this country,” she said. “They want to take down everything that our country was built on.”

“There is a Marxist agenda in this country." - Jennifer Robinson, Kaufman resident

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Michael Embry, who wore thick glasses and a bushy gray beard, took the podium next. He echoed the previous speaker's comments, insisting that antifa and Black Lives Matter plan to “destroy it all,” everything from Confederate statues to the Mayflower. “Their goal, of course, as Mr. Hart alluded to, is to rebuild society and teach people whatever they want us to believe.”

Altogether, the exchange lasted less than an hour. When the county commissioners wrapped up the discussion, their answer seemed obvious. Kaufman County Judge Richards celebrated the occasion as a “civil dialogue,” and no one called for a motion on the item. No action would be taken. The commissioners moved on to the next item, a discussion of whether heavy trucks should be allowed to use residential roads.

Speaking by telephone, Richards described the months-long debate as "an interesting journey," explaining that the citizens commission had worked hard to gather a wide range of opinions. In the end, however, few seemed to change their minds.

"I think the real big surprise was that literally since that day I have not heard from one person about the monument," he said. "What that tells me is that we accomplished what we were trying to accomplish."

Commissioners Ken Cates, Mike Hunt and Skeet Phillips didn't respond to email inquiries. An email sent to Kaufman Mayor Jeff Jordan went unanswered. The county, it seemed, considered the issue decided.

But James Henderson said the matter remains far from settled. Many in the Black community were too afraid to speak out publicly after witnessing the backlash he had endured, he explained. On top of that, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on the prospect of holding more rallies. Still, he plans to continue organizing and hopes he and like-minded people in the community can find sympathetic candidates to run against the current members of the Commissioners Court. “It’s not a dead issue,” he said. "I’m just changing tactics.”

Combs also agrees that it will be a lengthy process, although he views last summer's protests as a step in the right direction. “We are just at the point of having our toes in the water,” he said. “We've started a conversation that's going to be a much longer one.”

Soon, no one will have to walk past the statue while heading into the courthouse. In April, construction crews will break ground on a building that will include a new county courthouse, located off Highway 175. Still, Henderson wants the monument to come down, new justice center or not. “Truth is truth,” he said. “It can’t stay up forever.”
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Patrick Strickland is the news editor at the Dallas Observer. He's a former senior reporter at Al Jazeera English and has reported for the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Politico EU and The New Republic, among others.