Willie Hudspeth stands in front of the Denton County Commissioners Court as if he’s a witness pleading to a judge and jury of his peers.
Hudspeth, a Vietnam War veteran, looks younger than his 69 years. Just a smidgen of gray colors his black hair, and his build still looks fit despite his age, in part because he still wrestles with used laundry machines and old furniture at his resale shop on the corner of Oak and Bonnie Brae streets.
Hudspeth has been regularly attending county commissioners’ meetings since he picked up his protest sign and started standing underneath the Denton County Confederate Soldier Memorial on the Square in late July.
The monument was erected in front of the Courthouse on the Square in 1918 by the Daughters of the Confederacy to honor fallen Confederate soldiers, many of whom were fighting for the right to continue slavery, and remember their cause and tradition.
Hudspeth, who serves as president of Denton’s NAACP, picked up his protest sign again when he witnessed the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol in South Carolina over the summer. The flag was removed in response to the massacre at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where a white gunman slew nine worshippers, all of them African-American.
Hudspeth’s demand is simple: Put the Confederate monument on the commissioners’ agenda for discussion. But commissioners continue to ignore his pleas.
“Why won’t you put the item on the agenda?” Hudspeth asks commissioners each week, as if he’s playing a broken record.
In open court, commissioners never provide a reason why they won’t put it on the agenda for discussion. Commissioners never speak with Hudspeth as he slowly approaches the podium to preach the same sermon he’s been preaching for several months now, the same sermon he’s been preaching since the early 2000s.
Commissioners never speak to anyone who addresses them during the public comment section of the meeting because they walk a fine line between responding and deliberation, and they don’t want to violate Texas open meeting laws.
Instead, commissioners listen to his sermon for three minutes before moving him on his way so that someone else can address the Commissioners Court for his or her three minutes to speak. But it’s been only Hudspeth showing up week after week to speak during the public comment section of the commissioners’ meeting.
Denton County Judge Mary Horn says she doesn’t know what else to do.
“Willie has selective hearing, and I try to be respectful and answer his questions,” Horn says. “We have met with him. Other members of the court have met with him. Prior court members have met with him, trying to get an answer to this issue. It’s really superfluous.”
Horn says that if one of the commissioners did post the Confederate memorial on the agenda for discussion, they would hold court from 9 a.m. until midnight discussing the issue, but for what purpose?
Commissioners pointed out in a four-page document designed to address the issue that the Courthouse on the Square and its surrounding property already constitute a museum, as defined by the Texas Historical Commission, the National Parks Service and the National Association of Museums.
Bradford Patterson, director of community heritage development for the Texas Historical Commission, told Denton County commissioners in a fax dated July 18, 2000, that Historical Commission officials “consider the Confederate [memorial] to be historic and part of the [Courthouse on the Square].”
Horn says the Texas Historical Commission and various restoration experts have already told commissioners that moving the monument would damage it.
Commissioners Andy Eads and Bobbie Mitchell recently met with Hudspeth, but they didn’t discuss the monument, Hudspeth says. They discussed cleaning up a slave cemetery in Pilot Point that Hudspeth recently brought to light during one of his public comments.
Commissioner Hugh Coleman told the Denton Record-Chronicle that the Confederate monument was extensively discussed with Hudspeth’s input in 2010, and a decision was made to place a plaque near it to explain why the memorial was erected, although Hudspeth claims he never approved the wording.
“I don’t think any further discussion will bring resolution but rather inflame the emotions,” Coleman says. “I think that there are a lot of people seeking to divide us rather than bring us together, and they are using this issue for that purpose.”
Hudspeth has seen the commissioners’ four-page document and read some of the issues that they highlight. He understands they don’t want to place the item on the agenda. But he continues to protest the Confederate monument every Sunday evening and attend the commissioners’ weekly meeting, aiming to preach his sermon until one of the commissioners listens.
“I just learned that you’ve got to do what you’re going to do,” Hudspeth says. “You’ve just got to do what you think you should do.”
CHRISTIAN McPHATE can be reached at 940-566-6878 and via Twitter @writerontheedge.