Willie Hudspeth protested the Confederate monument in his Texas town, almost every Sunday, for 21 years.
In June 2020 - one month after the killing of George Floyd - the monument finally came down.
Hudspeth's vigils inspired a reckoning about Denton's past, including the forced relocation of the once-thriving Black community known as Quakertown.
The Historic Square in Denton, Texas, is a sprawling lawn dotted with old oak trees. On weekends, it's a destination for families and students from Denton's two major universities. The historic County Courthouse is in the center, surrounded by a commercial strip with a few hip coffee shops, a pizza joint where indie bands play late into the night, an old-fashioned ice cream shop, and a bookstore.
For over a century - until last June 25 - there was also a Confederate monument: A 20-foot statue of a uniformed soldier over the words, "Our Confederate Soldiers." And for the last two decades, nearly every week on Sunday afternoon, from 4 to 7pm, a Black resident of Denton named Willie Hudspeth would set up a lawn chair, some signs, and sit in protest.
Hudspeth - a retired middle school teacher, Vietnam veteran, and leader of the local NAACP - was already 54 years-old when he started his protests; by the time he watched it come down, he was 75 and bent with age. On the infamous night, Hudspeth was there, hauled out of bed at 4 in the morning by allies who heard the commotion. Cell phone video caught Hudspeth's shocked reaction, as buzzsaws could be heard cutting through concrete. "Thank god it actually happened," he said in an interview the next day. But the secrecy around the removal was bittersweet. "For 21-years, I have been going down there, talking about removing the statue, and it's just like these commissioners to do what they did."
Today, there's no trace of the monument on the Square. Denton has changed in other ways, too.
Hudspeth's weekly protests were a catalyst for an investigation into Denton's past - the legacy of Klavern No. 136, Denton's branch of the Ku Klux Klan; the razing of the Black middle class district known as Quakertown; the dates that Black men were lynched in Denton County. At the end of 2020, Denton even elected its first Black mayor - a Republican who is also Hudspeth's son.
"He read them for filth"
For Hudspeth, the whole thing started in 1999 with a seemingly innocuous proposal to turn on a pair of water fountains that were affixed to each leg of the monument's arch. The consensus among county leaders, all of whom were white, was that the fountains had never been operable - that pipes would have to be put down for the fountains to work.
Denton's Black residents remembered it differently; the fountains had definitely worked, and they were "white only."
The fountains presented a mystery, and solving it required knowing the statue's origin story. Around the turn of the 20th century when the South was emerging from Reconstruction to enter a new world order where Black people were now free, a few groups formed to remind everybody of how things used to be, and in their view, were supposed to be. One was the KKK, whose members sang in white churches on Sunday mornings and terrorized Black neighborhoods at night. White women who wanted to do their part could join the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).
And do their part they did-all across the South, as Jim Crow ramped up in the late 1800s and "The Birth of a Nation" hit theatres in 1915, the UDC and other similar groups fundraised to erect over 700 Confederate monuments in places of public prominence. A large majority were erected between 1900 and 1920, and tended to have a cookie-cutter look, reflecting the swift establishment under the perception of lost ground from the white South. Many of the statues feature a sculpted concrete image of a soldier atop arches or mounts emblazoned with "Our Confederate Soldiers" and a plaque honoring the sons conscripted into the War of Northern Aggression. The Denton Confederate monument went up toward the end of this era, in 1918, but with one distinction-the fountains on either side of the arch.
As the debate in 1999 turned increasingly contentious, a local historian dug up old newspaper clippings that showed the fountains in use. (Years later, in 2018, the county commissioned a ground test and confirmed that the fountains had indeed been operable.) But increasingly, it was a conversation that few wanted to have, and shutting it down meant tabling the water fountain discussion altogether. "Because," Hudspeth says of the town, "it would show they were racist." As Hudspeth saw it, Denton needed to deal with its past and, for that to happen, the fountains had to be turned on. "Turn them on," became his battle cry. even before the fate of the monument was on the table. "Turn them on and let everyone drink."
County leaders held firm. "I know for a fact that the memorial has never had an operable fountain," Mary Horn, the chair of the Denton County Commissioner's Court, which oversaw the monument, and who would spar with Hudspeth over the monument until her retirement in 2018, said at the time. "There is NO water line from the building to the memorial and never has been."
Hudspeth started attending nearly every Commissioner's Court meeting to talk about the monument. He showed up at City Council meetings. Katina Stone-Butler, a local artist, remembers stumbling upon Hudspeth on the local access TV channel in the nineties. "Just giving everybody the business," she laughs. "He read them for filth."
The Commissioner's Court referred Hudspeth to the Denton County Historical Commission, which then referred him to the Texas Historical Commission, which then referred him back to the Commissioner's Court. "They had me going in circles," Hudspeth says. "Rabbit chases to wear me down."
Finally, Hudspeth had had enough. If county leaders weren't willing to engage with him, he would take the conversation to the Square. "[That] Willie was angry," Hudspeth says, looking back. "He was angry at everybody and everything. My name was chaos. I wanted to create chaos wherever I could-and I mean everywhere."
He was working then as a junk hauler but he had Sundays off. And so, on one Sunday in 1999, he held his first protest at the foot of the Confederate monument.
To the Black community in Denton, the city's selective memory was nothing new. The forced relocation of Quakertown proved it.
In the decades after the Civil War. Quakertown was a thriving Black merchant district near the center of town. Denton was Denton-but Quakertown was theirs. There were Black doctors and lawyers and Black-owned shops.
But then, white Denton decided that Quakertown was in the way. The College of Industrial Arts, a school for white women, had been built on the edge of Quakertown, just beyond the Square. The town claimed the students needed more space for the ladies to walk safely from school. Plans had also been drawn up for a new Denton Civic Park - exactly where Quakertown then stood. As a historical marker set down in the park in 2013 puts it, "the civic-minded interests of Denton's white residents threatened the future of Quakertown."
In 1921, three years after the Confederate monument went up in Denton, the town voted to relocate the whole of Quakertown to Solomon Hill, a swampy cow pasture on the other side of the railroad tracks in southeast Denton, thus giving the white ladies their walking path to school. More than 60 families lost their homes and many residents left Denton altogether. It was the same year as the Tulsa Race Massacre, 270 miles north, when the city's "Black Wall Street" was burned and 300 people were killed.
What happened to Quakertown sealed in a wound that has not healed to this day. Some of the old Quakertown homes still sit on cinder blocks from the hasty relocation. There was never an apology from Denton's white leadership, much less compensation offered to those who had lost their community and livelihoods.
"I think it broke their spirit, really," says Linnie M. McAdams, who is 83 and served as Denton's first Black councilwoman. In the 1980s, she pushed to revitalize southeast Denton, where the grandchildren of the original Quakertown residents still live to this day, but she says that getting people involved in local politics was like pulling teeth.
Once McAdams, who had come to Denton as an adult, learned the history of Quakertown, things started making sense. "I didn't understand the devastation of that move," she says. "And what it did to those people to be moved out of their homes over to a god forsaken area with no city services. And the city was in no hurry to do anything about it."
Katina Stone-Butler, an artist who also moved to Denton as an adult, described a similar experience. "Black people don't really go on the Square," Stone-Butler says. "There's a spiritual barrier there because of the racist history of this county."
With two major universities in town, a world-class School of Jazz, and progressive leadership on the city council, Denton enjoys a reputation as a blue dot amid the conservative Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.
But to Stone-Butler, who is Black and co-hosts the podcast, Black History for White People, it's the same old racism, just in a hipster outfit. "Coffee house, skinny jean racism," she says.
A long, solitary protest
That first Sunday of Hudspeth's protest, he set up a sign that read "God loves us all" - with a smiley face for the "o" in God - and sat down in a lawn chair at the base of the monument. And for years after that, rain or shine, he stuck with it. Often, he would strike up conversations with people about the history of the statue.
As the years passed, Hudspeth's goals shifted - a fact that his detractors would seize on. At first, he wanted the fountains turned on, along with a plaque that would explain their history of Jim Crow segregation. Later, he said the monument should be moved to a museum.
If there was going to be a Confederate monument on public property, Hudspeth figured he would be its living presence, there to offer context and perspective. If the monument paid tribute to Confederate soldiers, as Horn and its defenders claimed, Hudspeth's protests inspired a deep look at the past.
At times, students rallied behind him, though their efforts tended to come and go with the graduation cycles. In 2008, after students circulated a petition calling for the monument's removal, the Denton County Historical Commission announced a plan for a Quakertown House Museum dedicated to Denton's Black history.
In walking tours, blog posts and podcasts, the excavation of Denton's racist past had started. Students found old newspaper clippings that revealed a KKK parade through Denton in 1921, more Klan activity alongside the raising of Quakertown, and Klan ties to city leadership. When Hudspeth discovered unmarked graves at the overgrown and unkempt St. John's Cemetery, a plaque was ordered and work began to identify the dead and piece together their stories. Denton County lynchings were catalogued.
"Willie is a heat-seeking missile man of action," says Shaun Treat, a local activist and historian. "He doesn't quit."
As Hudspeth continued his protest, the tension in Denton rose.
The area had been thick with families and onlookers. When police arrived, the man forfeited his ammunition but was allowed to leave the scene with his rifle. He claimed that he was there "to make a point" and was never charged. Security in the Square ramped up after that.
Pressure was also building from outside.
The 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville brought things to a head. "That was a big one," Hudspeth says. "We [Black Lives Matter] joined together, and chaos was on again."
In 2019, Texas finally agreed to remove from its statehouse a plaque stating that the Civil War "was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery." Texas still observes Confederate History Month every April and, according to the Texas Observer, while the state had removed more Confederate symbols than any other, as of 2019, 68 remained.
Denton announced a new Confederate Memorial Advisory Committee, which included Hudspeth in its 15 members. When the committee voted 12-3 to keep the monument in place, but add a plaque decrying slavery and video kiosks dedicated to Black history in Denton, Hudspeth was one of the dissenting votes.
However, it was only a recommendation and the Commissioner's Court, now led by Judge Andy Eads, needed to approve it. Eads ordered ground-penetrating tests that finally confirmed the fountains had been linked to pipes.
But then came COVID. And then, the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Confederate statues were coming down across the south. In Denton, police shot and killed Darius Tarver, a young Black man in mental crisis. There were also renewed questions about the mysterious death of Lermont Stowers Jones two years earlier on Denton's Old Alton Bridge, a rumored site of past lynchings.
Suddenly, it wasn't just Willie Hudspeth protesting at the Confederate monument.
On June 9, 2020, the Commissioner's Court approved an emergency request to the Texas Historical Commission to relocate the monument to protect it from "desecration." When Denton woke up on the morning of June 25, the Confederate soldier was gone.
Hudspeth spends his Sundays at home with his wife of 52 years, who is happy to see him simmer down for once. But he still attends county meetings, as he says, to keep its leaders in check. And he shares his views with his son, Gerard Hudspeth, who was elected as Denton's first Black Mayor in December 2020 and has largely stayed out of Denton's debates about race.
"My dad and I still argue politics and sometimes it gets hot," Mayor Hudspeth says. "I am what I am because of his modeling on how to serve and be active in your community."
"He surprises me," Hudspeth says of his son. "We still fight. But we laugh, too."
Hudspeth chuckles and shakes his head. "He's doing a good job."
What comes next is up to the Texas Historical Commission, which in April approved plans to move the monument to Denton's Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum. McAdams, the retired councilwoman, is pushing for a memorial honoring victims of lynchings in Denton County to be installed there, too.
"That statue is a tribute to the people who have mistreated me all my life," she says. "It gives comfort and a sense of right to those people who are bigoted and filled with hate… a symbol of the good ol' days when they had control and you didn't have all these n*****s walking around everywhere. That's what it says to them."
As Stone-Butler, the Denton artist, sees it: "It's not enough to move a monument that has been the physical gatekeeper of racism and systemic oppression. It needs to crumble to the ground."
"If Denton wants to put up a monument," Stone-Butler says, "they can put up a monument of Willie Hudspeth."
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