'We Always Knew What It Stood For': Small Texas Town Torn Over Its Confederate Statue

Aug 3, 2020
Originally published on August 3, 2020 11:03 am

The figure of a young Confederate soldier holding a rifle has gazed out from his pedestal in front of the Harrison County Courthouse in the piney woods of northeast Texas for 114 years.

The 8-foot statue was a gift — like hundreds of others across the South — from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They are memorials to the war dead and, historians say, monuments to white supremacy and Jim Crow laws.

"Growing up, we always knew that it was here on the courthouse square," says Demetria McFarland, the implacable fifth-grade teacher and community activist who is spearheading the campaign to relocate the statue in the county seat of Marshall. "We always knew what it stood for. It was just one of those taboo things, you know."

More than 60 monuments that celebrate the Confederacy and its military men have come down in cities all across America — from San Diego to Raleigh, N.C.— since the death of George Floyd. Many have been removed in medium- to large-size cities, according to a tally by The Associated Press.

But more than 1,700 monuments remain, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, including in some small Southern towns that may be more protective of their Civil War monuments. In Marshall, an emotional debate over the fate of "the farm boy" — as some call the rebel soldier carved of Italian marble — is roiling residents.

"We're not asking them to destroy the statue," McFarland said. "We're asking them to remove it. I no longer want to have my taxpayer dollars keeping this symbol of hate and racism erected here on the courthouse square."

Statue opponents gather for prayer at the courthouse before speaking at a recent meeting of the Harrison County Commissioner's Court.
John Burnett / NPR

McFarland is sitting on a wall, looking up at the statue, at the end of a sweltering day. Her black T-shirt says: "8:46, I Can't Breathe," referring to Floyd's last words and the time it took for a police officer's knee to asphyxiate him.

She traveled to Minneapolis to visit the place where he took his last breath. In her mind, Floyd's brutal death recorded on video and the historic mistreatment of Black people in Harrison County are inescapably linked.

On this day, McFarland notices a cream-colored SUV parked at a distance. The driver is taking pictures with her cellphone.

"If you're taking a picture toward me, I need to know what you're doing it for!" McFarland yells as she trots toward the vehicle.

The occupant is Sandy Smith, part of the Save Our Statue counter-movement. A cutout of President Trump's head dangles from her rearview mirror. McFarland stands at the open window, while Smith stays in her car.

"I do this every evening actually. I drive by to make sure it's OK," Smith says, referring to the statue, "because as much as that is a representative of what you hate. ..."

McFarland cuts her off: "No, I don't hate anything. I just know what it stands for."

"But you don't necessarily know what it stands for," Smith continues. "It also stands for the memories of those children that didn't come back. Because they fought for something they didn't have a choice not to fight for, and they were sharecroppers' children. You understand that?"

Locals with the Save Our Statue counter-movement keep a constant eye on the monument to make sure it's not vandalized.
John Burnett / NPR

"But I know they don't represent who I am, which is a young black person," McFarland says unflappably.

This exchange in the courthouse parking lot is one of the more civil ones. Things have gotten ugly in Marshall in recent weeks since the movement has swelled for the county to move the statue.

"I do believe at the end of all of this, the right decision will be made," says Tasha Williams, another prominent voice among statue opponents. "I hope it will, because the racial tensions and division in the county now is at an all-time high, and it's growing."

Williams says she has been singled out for threats and epithets. She says an older white man menaced her with a handgun in front of the courthouse on July Fourth.

Tasha Williams, a leading voice in the campaign to move the statue, says, "Racial tensions and division in the county are at an all-time high, and it's growing."
John Burnett / NPR

Zephaniah Timmins says it's happened to him, too. He is the county's lone Black commissioner and supports the relocation of the statue.

"I try to keep my composure about things," Timmins says with an easy smile. "I been called the N-word, I been called a Sambo, Uncle Tom. But I have thick skin. You have to call me something different, and I'll probably laugh at that, too."

But the call to remove the statue has been a cause for self-reflection among some Marshall natives.

"We would walk around the square with my grandchildren and stop in front of the statue, and I used to say we were using it as an educational tool to talk about the Civil War. That's how we rationalized it," Narcie Crosby says.

"But I don't think I really took to heart what it meant for Black people to walk by this and see it every day. And once I began to really think about it, well, I'm definitely in favor of relocating it."

The city of Marshall, population 25,000, is about half-Black, half-white. Antebellum Harrison County grew rich from slave labor and king cotton. After Texas seceded, Marshall became an important Confederate stronghold west of the Mississippi as a supply hub and military infirmary.

Atrocities continued after the war. After one infamous lynching in 1903, a newspaper account at the time said: "The declaration is made that every negro will be driven from Marshall." And as recently as 2013, the Ku Klux Klan recruited in Marshall.

Today, the city touts its annual Christmas lights festival and its proximity to beautiful Caddo Lake. The historic courthouse — constructed of yellow brick and adorned with eagles and Lady Justice — along with the statue are listed as a State Antiquities Landmark.

For weeks, citizens have been coming before the Harrison County Commissioner's Court to make their cases for and against moving the statue.

"The argument for removal is a passionate yet misguided one. Our focus must be the preservation of our history, honoring the young men, sons, husbands and fathers lost in the Civil War," a resident named Leigh Ann Buchanan said at a July 22 meeting.

The commissioners listened behind their desks in the ornate, high-ceiling courtroom that looks like the set from To Kill a Mockingbird. Now, the defendant is the statue of the Confederate rifleman.

Herman Felton, president of local Wiley College, makes a presentation to commissioners: "It's humiliating to be here when we know the damage done to Black Americans under the auspices of the Confederacy."
John Burnett / NPR

"Today, I advocate for the removal of the statue," Herman Felton, president of local Wiley College, told the commissioners. Wiley's legendary debate team is where the civil rights fighter, James Farmer Jr., got his start.

"The tributes to a Confederate soldier or general of a treasonous army have no place in our society," Felton said. "And quite frankly it's humiliating to be here when we all know the damage done to Black Americans under the auspices of the Confederacy."

The commissioner's court is set to vote on the fate of the statue on Aug. 19.

The tide is shifting all across the country. At least three other Texas counties are considering what to do with their Confederate monuments. Next door in Caddo Parish, just across the state line in Shreveport, La., officials recently agreed to remove an even larger rebel statue from their courthouse.

And last month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to remove all Confederate statues from the Capitol. The Senate has not taken up the legislation.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy did not respond to a request for comment on the Marshall statue. But the Sons of Confederate Veterans spoke out.

"We ain't won anywhere. I'll be honest with you," says Bill Elliott, camp commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Marshall and a former constable.

Elliott has placed small Confederate flags on dozens of graves of fallen soldiers in the city cemetery. Statue opponents have proposed the cemetery as the logical place to relocate the courthouse monument.

Bill Elliott, local commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, stands before an obelisk honoring unknown Confederate soldiers buried in the city cemetery. Some locals suggest the soldier statue should be moved to the cemetery.
John Burnett / NPR

"We are Southern gentlemen," Elliott says. "Let's talk this out. If it's got to be moved, we're for working with everybody. We just want it to be done right and proper. We want it to go somewhere it's gonna be safe. We want it somewhere for people to come see it."

But if the county decides to move the statue, and the Texas Historical Commission — which has the final say — approves, will that really change anything?

There are skeptics, even in the Black community.

Kendrick Brazzell, owner of the Soul Palace restaurant in Marshall, rushes out with plates of fried catfish and hush puppies to his curbside customers on a recent day. He stops between orders to offer an opinion.

"Well, it don't really mean nothin' if it come down. But if it come down, and it [means] that people gonna change, I'm with it. But other than that, it's just a statue."

To Brazzell, the removal of the Confederate statue is only a symbolic act unless it's followed up with the real work of improving race relations in Marshall.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, Confederate statues have been taken down in lots of cities. Hundreds of them are still up, though. Some towns are very protective of these monuments. Here's John Burnett from one of those towns in East Texas.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The figure of a Confederate soldier holding a rifle has gazed down from his pedestal in front of the Harrison County Courthouse for 114 years. The marble statue was a gift, like hundreds of others across the South, from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They are memorials to the war dead and, historians say, monuments to white supremacy and Jim Crow laws.

DEMETRIA MCFARLAND: Well, growing up, we always knew that it was here on the courthouse square. We always knew what it stood for. It was just kind of one of those taboo things, you know?

BURNETT: Demetria McFarland is the implacable fifth-grade teacher and community activist who's spearheading the campaign to relocate the statue. She wears a T-shirt that says 8:46, I can't breathe, referring to George Floyd's last words and the time it took for a policeman's knee to asphyxiate him. At the end of a sweltering day, McFarland sits on a wall beside the courthouse looking up at the stoic soldier.

MCFARLAND: We're not asking them to destroy the statue. We're asking them to remove it. I no longer want to have my taxpayer dollars keeping this symbol of hate and racism erected here on the courthouse grounds.

BURNETT: Suddenly, McFarland notices a cream-colored SUV parked at a distance. The driver is taking pictures of us.

MCFARLAND: Hold on. Did you need to say something to me, young lady?

BURNETT: McFarland trots over to the SUV to confront the picture taker. Her name is Sandy Smith. And she's part of the Save Our Statue counter-movement. A cut-out of Donald Trump's head dangles from her rearview mirror. McFarland stands at her open window. Smith stays in her car.

SANDY SMITH: I'm just doing my thing. I do this every evening actually. I drive by to make sure it's OK because as much as that is a representative of what you hate...

MCFARLAND: No, I don't hate anything. I just know what it stands for.

SMITH: ...But you don't necessarily know what it stands for. It also stands for those memories of those children that didn't come back because they fought for something that they didn't have a choice not to fight for. And they were sharecroppers' children. Do you understand that?

MCFARLAND: But I know that they don't represent who I am, which is a young Black person.

SMITH: OK, but that represents...

BURNETT: This exchange in the courthouse parking lot is one of the more civil ones. Things have gotten ugly in Marshall of late. There have been threats, epithets and guns displayed. Zephaniah Timmins is the county's lone Black commissioner. And he supports the statue's removal. He sits in his office in the courthouse.

ZEPHANIAH TIMMINS: I've tried to keep my composure about things. I've been called the N-word. I've been called a Sambo, Uncle Tom. But I have thick skin. You have to call me something different. And I'll probably laugh at that, too (laughter), you know?

BURNETT: The city of Marshall, tucked in the piney woods of northeast Texas, has 25,000 people, about equal Blacks and whites. It is the seat of Harrison County, which grew rich from slave labor and king cotton. After Texas seceded, Marshall became an important Confederate stronghold west of the Mississippi as a supply hub and military infirmary.

Atrocities continued after the war. During one infamous lynching in 1903, a newspaper account at the time said the declaration is made that every Negro will be driven from Marshall. The statue was unveiled three years later. And as recently as 2013, the Klan recruited here. Today, the city touts its annual Christmas lights festival and its proximity to beautiful Caddo Lake. The historic courthouse, together with the statue, are listed as a State Antiquities Landmark. For weeks, citizens have been coming before the commissioner's court to make their cases for and against moving the statue.

LEIGH ANN BUCHANAN: The argument for removal is a passionate yet misguided one. Our focus must be the preservation of our history, honoring the young men, sons, husbands and fathers lost in the Civil War.

BURNETT: That's a resident named Leigh Ann Buchanan. The commissioners listen behind their desks in an ornate, high ceiling courtroom that looks like the set from "To Kill A Mockingbird." Now the defendant is the statue of the Confederate rifleman. Next to speak is Herman Felton, president of local Wiley College. Its legendary debate team is where the civil rights fighter James Farmer Jr. got his start.

HERMAN FELTON: Today, I advocate for the removal of the statue. The tributes to a Confederate soldier or general of a treasonous army have no place in our society. And quite frankly, it's humiliating to be here when we all know the damage done to Black Americans under the auspices of the Confederacy.

BURNETT: The commissioner's court is set to vote on the fate of the statue later this month as the tide is shifting across the land. Next door in Caddo Parish, just across the state line in Shreveport, La., officials recently agreed to remove an even larger Confederate statue from their courthouse. And last month, the U.S. House voted to remove all Confederate statues from the Capitol building.

BILL ELLIOTT: We ain't won anywhere. I'll be honest with you. We ain't won anywhere.

BURNETT: Bill Elliott is commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Marshall and a former constable. He meets me in the city cemetery where Confederate flags flutter over dozens of graves of fallen soldiers. Statue opponents have proposed that the cemetery is the logical place to relocate the monument. Elliott sounds resigned.

ELLIOTT: We're the South. We're Southern gentlemen. Let's talk this out. If it's got to be moved, we're for working with everybody. We just want it be done right and proper. We want it to go somewhere that's going to be safe. We want it somewhere so people can come see it.

BURNETT: But if the county decides to move the statue and the State Historical Commission, which has the final say, approves, will that really change anything? There are skeptics, even in the Black community. I caught up with Kendrick Brazzell, the owner of the Soul Palace restaurant in Marshall, as he was rushing out plates of fried catfish and hush puppies for curbside customers.

KENDRICK BRAZZELL: Well, it don't really mean nothing if it come down. But if it come down and it mean people going to change, I'm with it. But other than that, it's just a statue.

BURNETT: To Brazzell, the removal of the Confederate statue is only a symbolic act unless it's followed up with the real work of improving race relations in his city. John Burnett, NPR News, Marshall, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH'S "PERSPECTIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.