The Dallas Morning News
A lonely watchdog in Denton finding allies
He was a lonely watchdog. I remember 19 years ago when Willie Hudspeth explained to me why he was ready to do battle with the Confederate soldier statue at the Denton County Courthouse.
He didn’t want it knocked down. He just wanted an explanation added to reflect modern times. He was pretty much alone on this.
I’ll always remember how Willie, who was then my son’s middle school football coach, explained it: “I’m a teacher, an educator. I know that to get people to learn, you jump right into the issues and talk about them.”
For most of the years that followed, he stood alone on the issue. He marched every Sunday evening on the courthouse square.
He appeared before county commissioners, meeting after meeting, year after year. He asked for action, any kind of action. But mostly, for a long time, he was ignored.
Then came Charlottesville. The white nationalist rally in August that led to a counterprotester’s murder suddenly thrust Willie’s cause to the forefront.
Suddenly, he had dozens of supporters. Suddenly, the county commissioners reversed course. After almost two decades of saying no, they agreed to create a Confederate Soldier Memorial Plaque Committee.
This month, the volunteers recommended leaving the statute as is, but with an explanation added to reflect modern times. County commissioners must approve and fund the next steps.
Nineteen years. That’s all it took. But Denton didn’t need Charlottesville to pay attention. Denton has its own Charlottesville. It’s called Quakertown. And its tragic story began a hundred years ago.
What happened there, and the unnecessary 19-year delay to get county leaders to agree to something as simple as adding an explanation that reflects modern times, shows me that Denton County still hasn’t come to terms with its racially divisive past.
Back to Quakertown
Go back with me in time, a hundred years, to a thriving middle-class community of 80 black families who live in Denton’s Quakertown neighborhood. The name honors Quaker abolitionists who helped in the Underground Railroad.
It’s 1918, and Quakertown has a doctor’s office, restaurant, general store, funeral home, school, churches, lodges and more.
That same year, not far from the thriving community, the Daughters of the Confederacy have erected a monument on the courthouse lawn that honors CSA, Confederate States of America.
Two years later, in 1920, we hear the president of the growing women’s College of Industrial Arts situated a block away from Quakertown’s edge promote the notion that Denton “could rid the college of the menace of the negro quarters in close proximity.”
At a Rotary meeting, he launches the idea, which gains strength among Denton’s white leaders, who want to build a new city park.
Now travel with me 11 years forward to 1929. The neighborhood is long gone, replaced by the new Civic Center Park.
All families that once lived here were evicted and forcibly moved to a converted cow pasture with no city services.
The government and voters did it the legal way. In 1921, they held a $75,000 bond election to pay for the project.
The “park movement” side won 367 to 240 votes. Most Quakertown residents were not allowed to vote on their future.
Bond money was used to buy Quakertown’s homes and businesses, move them or seize them — and build the park.
The Ku Klux Klan was around, but whether they assisted is murky. Denton had 294 initiated Klansmen around that time, according to University of North Texas graduate history student Chelsea Stallings’ 2015 Quakertown study.
It took Denton, both city and county, many decades to remember and acknowledge the lost community. In 2007, Civic Center Park was renamed Quakertown Park.
Historical markers try to tell the story. One marker pretties up the civic embarrassment, claiming the neighborhood was “transformed” into a park.
What replaced the lost community and its surroundings? Modern-day Denton. A civic center, library, women’s club building, senior center, community pool and Denton City Hall.
More Denton County residents
have learned of Quakertown’s past in the last 20 years. An original Quakertown house serves as the Denton County African American Museum.
There’s momentum to make amends. The Denton ISD school board recently voted to remove the name Robert E. Lee from an elementary school.
Launching his battle
When he launched his battle in the late 1990s, Coach Hudspeth, who later served on the Denton ISD board, was my son’s teacher. He was a rabble-rouser who tried to solve problems.
His methods were unconventional yet dramatic. In 1998, I chaperoned one of Willie’s school field trips. He took three busloads of middle schoolers to a privately run prison in north Fort Worth.
He ushered a select dozen eighth-graders to the front row.
“These people are the smart mouths,” he informed the inmates.
The murderers, drug addicts and thieves told the students about their mistakes. One inmate yelled, “You want to go back and get locked up right now? ... Get that smirk off your face! Your counselor says you’re going to end up here.”
Parents later complained to the administration. Willie got in trouble. The prison trips ended. But I kept my eye on him.
Horn vs. Hudspeth
Willie has dogged Denton County Judge Mary Horn for so long. In an irony, she appointed Willie to the monument committee.
Horn, who until then had blocked Willie’s quest, said of the monument, “It’s not even glorifying the Confederate war. It’s a monument put up by these women who wanted to acknowledge the loss of their loved ones, their husbands, their fathers, their brothers.”
The monument went up 53 years after the Civil War ended, and three years before the Quakertown evictions.
Horn, after serving since 2002 as the county’s top administrator, is retiring this year. Willie, 72, is running for her job in the March 6 Democratic primary. His opponent is Diana Leggett.
Win or lose, as is his habit, he promises to keep protesting every Sunday until an explanation is added to reflect modern times.
Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.