As summer turns into fall, Denton will increasingly move into the gaze of a national project whose backers want to empower local activists in their efforts to remove Confederate monuments in communities around the country.
Called the Make It Right Project, its leaders have 10 Confederate monuments across the United States that they believe should be taken down or removed. At No. 10 on the list sits Denton County’s Confederate soldier memorial, erected in 1918 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Dallas’ Confederate War Memorial and Houston’s Spirit of the Confederacy statues are on the list. So are the John C. Calhoun Monument in Charleston and the Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson statues in Charlottesville, Virginia, where earlier this year Make It Right paid for a billboard advertisement that reads “MONUMENTAL CHANGE NEEDED.”
Denton’s struggle to grapple with the legacy of its Confederate monument in a public place is now formally intertwined with the legacies of other Confederate statues across the United States.
Not that Denton’s unhurried progress has been ignored by national headlines on this subject. Willie Hudspeth’s 20-year tussle with the Confederate statue here was the subject of a Vice video earlier this year. The 9-minute documentary video caught the attention of Kali Holloway, the director of Make It Right, a project by the New York-based Independent Media Institute.
“I immediately reached out to him,” Holloway said of Hudspeth when she saw the piece. “He reminded me of people who are in so many other places.”
Holloway said Hudspeth’s fight met criteria shared by many other anti-Confederate efforts around the country: Progress has been delayed, and Denton seems isolated from the broader conversations about white supremacy’s role in American government and culture.
That isolation, Holloway said, looks a lot like Hudspeth asking Denton County commissioners every Tuesday at 9 a.m. for more public dialogue and government action on the Confederate statue issue but receiving little or none.
“This isn’t an issue that is going to go away,” Holloway said.
Denton County officials have rejected efforts to remove the statue, favoring instead a plan to add two outdoor video kiosks and a large plaque decrying slavery. The plan developed early this year out of a 15-member advisory committee of community members, appointed by the county commissioners. Peggy Riddle, director of the county Office of History and Culture, said Friday that the county still does not have a timeline for completing the project and that there were no updates to report.
Hudspeth routinely asks commissioners to have a more robust public discussion about historic white supremacy, about alternatives to keeping the Confederate statue, and about what planners are doing.
“It’s going to be better than going behind closed doors, talking to each other, and trying to figure out what to do,” Hudspeth said. “We realize that it’s going to take votes to get any movement here. We have to have people who will vote these people out of office … if they do not fix it.”
The Make It Right top-10 list was formed back in the spring. Holloway said the nation had a busy summer on this front — with various racially charged protests happening across the country, including the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville’s deadly white supremacist rally from 2017 — so she and her colleagues will have more time in the coming months to plan and work in Denton.
Holloway said Denton residents should not expect Make It Right to come in and hover over what officials and activists are doing. Her focus has been to learn more about the local efforts and then determine the best ways to bolster those efforts, rather than serve as an outsider pumping money and media attention into the discussion. But she said the agenda is clear: to connect local activists such as Hudspeth with others across the country doing similar work, and to contextualize for people everywhere the Confederate statues’ implications of systemic white supremacy in the country historically and presently.
“Silent Sam,” the statue of a Confederate soldier on the University of North Carolina campus, was torn down by protesters in August. It had been No. 2 on the Make It Right list. The statue was toppled after students and activists spent months in solidarity with Maya Little, who devoted herself to razing it, often reciting a speech made by Ku Klux Klan supporter Julian Carr at the unveiling of Silent Sam in 1913. In the speech, which was uncovered in 2009 by a UNC graduate student, Carr openly boasted about brutalizing a black woman. Little covered the statue with red paint and her own blood because, she said, “the statue was lacking proper context.”
“It was built by white supremacists. It was built by people who believed that black people were inferior and wanted to intimidate them,” she told the Daily Tar Heel earlier this year. “So these statues symbolize violence toward black people.”
Hudspeth is far from the only person in Denton to call attention to the controversy of keeping the Confederate soldier statue on the Courthouse on the Square lawn. In summer 2015, two still-unidentified people tagged the statue with “THIS IS RACIST” in red spray paint. That was the same week Hudspeth met Stephen Passariello, the white Denton resident who brought his AR-15 to the Square for a counter-protest to Hudspeth’s and others’ calls to “Please move the statue to a Confederate museum.”
Holloway said these debates are often intensified by identity clashes, part of the reason white-majority commissioners courts like Denton County’s appear reluctant to identify Confederate monuments as overt threats to black people.
“They are very invested in making sure they are not removed,” Holloway said of public officials across the country.