I love that I am from Denton, Texas. In the nearly 10 years since I left my hometown, I still proudly introduce myself as a Dentonite, describing this DFW town as cooler than Austin, a center of arts innovation. “I’ve been to Denton,” a Houstonian I met recently mused. “Y’all still have that Confederate on your town square?”
And we’re done with the praises. Yes, I admit. Yes, we do.
As a city that delights in bringing art to its residents, it is especially vile that Denton’s racism should take place so vividly in the form of public artwork. Erected in 1918, along with many similar figures that litter the South from an era of Klansmen and eugenics, the Denton Confederate monument on the Square is a shameful testimony to our enduring, locally entrenched racism. In 2018, Denton County commissioners voted by a wide margin to retain the statue but add informational video kiosks. This was a weak solution, and one that has stalled in the pocket of county officials.
As Denton resumes conversations on how best to move forward, the city should recognize that any parallel public art, such as a proposed memorial to the lynching victims of Denton, will be largely ineffective in educating and engaging the public so long as the Confederate remains in his place of height and power over Denton. A memorial to Denton’s lynching victims should be erected but should not be forced to rest beneath the Confederate shadow. Denton’s statue should be archived and moved to a museum, where it belongs next to other relics of human history.
Art is powerful precisely because it supersedes the need for words. We value, and fund, public art because it educates beyond the textbook. Think of the emotions and varying messages elicited by, say, the Statue of Liberty, a worthy national symbol which transcends language. Yet in Denton, we are represented by a figure associated with violence and hatred. This sickening figure stands guard — with his gun — at the Courthouse, the symbolic center of local government, while the city of Denton tacitly accepts it as the city’s mascot.
And Denton’s political decisions do not operate in isolation. Aside from serving as a tourist destination for white supremacists, the hate-as-policy model translates to hate crime. In recent years, 76% of blacks, 76% of Asians and 58% of Hispanics have reported experiencing discrimination. Last year, reports of hate crimes in the DFW region spiked by 27%. Last month, a fellow North Texan brutally murdered 22 people because of the color of their skin.
There’s a valid argument to be made that removing Denton’s Confederate statue from the Square puts us at risk of, conversely, whitewashing our city’s history. But we do not need a monument to the Confederacy to erect a memorial to its victims. Museums and libraries are a critical public good because they preserve our history without monumentalizing it, and in Denton, public art resources are well-established and enjoy community support. Removing Denton’s statue would hardly result in either an undereducated populace or in significant protest. Indeed, dozens of cities, including several in Texas, have already successfully removed their Confederate monuments to little public objection.
Just as public art is uniquely suited to educate and engage, it is uniquely suited to heal. Consider the Legacy Museum, which has prompted a national soul-searching through its visual memorialization to the victims of racial terror. Public art is an effective tool to reach communities on an emotional level, connecting awareness with a call to action. At a time when we so desperately need healing as a city, state and nation, the continued shadow of a Confederate statue is not the answer.
Denton’s reputation in the arts surpasses its city limits, but so does its reputation for its Square. It is past time for Denton to take down this monument to racism, and to erect a memorial to its victims of racism. Art is a tremendously powerful mode of communication. As long as the Confederate statue remains on the Square, Denton’s city officials are culpable for permeating a message of white supremacy into the community.
While the statue remains, hate is afforded a place of honor in Denton.