If the county wishes to secure Denton’s downtown Square from a metaphorical invasion of Festivus poles, flying spaghetti monsters and horned goats, it would be wise to study the lessons learned four states to the east.
In December 2013, after the state of Florida had agreed to display a Hanukkah menorah, Christmas trees and a nativity scene in its Capitol building in Tallahassee, it began receiving a series of requests for somewhat-less-traditional holiday displays. Because the state had established a precedence in allowing clearly religious messages to be displayed in a state building, a number of groups sought and were granted grudging permission to add their displays alongside the nativity scene.
Over the next two Decembers, the first floor of the Florida Capitol building became a mishmash of tacky, kitschy, irreverent exhibits, from the American Atheists of Tallahassee’s Festivus pole made of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans to a display from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to a diorama from the Satanic Temple.
Only after the group behind the nativity scene vacated the building did sanity return to the Florida Capitol, as the other groups also over time removed their displays. The last holdover? A rainbow-colored Festivus pole — an homage to the Seinfeld-coined holiday “for the rest of us.”
Now back in Denton, still standing vigil over the downtown Square is the Confederate soldier monument, a contentious and crumbling homage to a lost cause erected during the Jim Crow era. The monument has stood its post for over 100 years, deteriorating while protected in place by the county Commissioners Court.
While similar Confederate monuments, including a statue of Robert E. Lee in Dallas, have been removed in recent years as national sentiments evolved, Denton County has fought to secure into perpetuity the presence of the monument on the Square. Most recently, a citizens advisory committee voted in February 2018 to keep the monument in its current location on the south side of the Courthouse on the Square lawn — albeit with the addition of videos and a plaque on the history of slavery, which has proven to be a problematic compromise. As well, outgoing County Judge Mary Horn directed the county historical commission before she left office to apply for a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark marker for the monument, which would have made it all but impossible to remove the monument.
Even though the Texas Historical Commission ultimately rejected the application, citing for one, the monument’s poor condition, has the county by means of its insistence that the monument not be moved or removed established a precedence for using the Square for such displays?
At least one group believes so.
The grassroots Denton County Community Remembrance Project last month announced its intentions to install a monument on the Square to honor two men who were lynched during the county’s early history. The group is one of several throughout the country working with the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, to honor the thousands of lives lost to lynching.
It’s a noble and worthy pursuit, ensuring that the county acknowledges its painful past while paying tribute to two residents whose names have been lost to tragedy.
But if the group is successful, visitors to the downtown Square — the heart of Denton’s independent, original spirit — will be met not by hallmarks of our best pursuits but instead by monuments to our worst mistakes. Is that really the first impression we wish to present as our community experiences historic levels of growth and change, welcoming new residents every week?
The county certainly should not hide from its past, but perhaps a better location exists for memorializing its most painful history. When the Confederate soldier monument was erected in the early 20th century, the decision-making behind its placement was not about precedence. But as the county evolves in the 21st century, the decisions it now makes regarding the image of the downtown Square will have a lasting impact.
County Judge Andy Eads has said an announcement regarding the Confederate monument will be made soon, while the Community Remembrance Project plans to meet Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Courthouse on the Square.
We encourage them to consider the precedence established in any decisions made — and hope they remember the lessons learned in Florida.