'We Always Knew What It Stood For': Small Texas Town Torn Over Its Confederate Statue
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 eight-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-sized 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."
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 policeman'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 cut-out of Donald Trump's head dangles from her rear-view 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 okay," 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?"
"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 4th.
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," he 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," says Narcie Crosby.
"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," said a resident named Leigh Ann Buchanan at the 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.
"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, Louisiana, officials recently agreed to remove an even larger rebel statue from their courthouse.
And last month, the U.S. House voted to remove all Confederate statues from the Capitol building. 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 is speaking 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.
"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 state 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 mean 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, Texas.