On the south side of Denton’s historic square is a memorial to soldiers who fell fighting for the Confederacy. The pale statue stands atop two public water fountains, which were signs of the times — in 1918, when the statue was erected, white and black residents were typically expected to drink from separate water fountains. However, according to Willie Hudspeth, both of these fountains were designated “whites only.”
Hudspeth, who has become a familiar face protesting the monument in Denton as that protest became more widespread, first turned his attention to the fountains in 1999, but he didn’t want them taken down. He wanted to drink from them.
“I thought it would be good to just get the water turned on again and just, take a drink from it,” he said.
Hudspeth said it was the start of a process that has lasted almost two decades, and said that the delays primarily came from the Denton County Commissioner’s court and Judge Mary Horn. With Horn now set to retire and large-scale protests over the statue having become a weekly event in Denton, Hudspeth wants to take her job, and is running as a Democrat for county judge.
After beginning to petition the government about the fountains at the turn of the century, Hudspeth said he’d more or less convinced the county to do something about it in 2005.
“I finally got the then-sitting commissioners and judge to agree with me, and they wrote it up that they would turn the water on and they would change the plaque out there to say what happened here,” he said. “Judge Horn came on, and she didn’t actually rule to not do that — she did nothing. She had the power to ignore every bit of that without writing, ‘we’re going to ignore this.'”
Hudspeth kept asking who had the authority to make changes about the fountains. He said he was told to get permission from the state historical commission, who sent him back to the county commissioner’s office. Then he was sent to the county historical commission, then back to the commissioner’s office. Then he was sent to the Denton city government. Then back to the county. Through all this, he could never get it onto the agenda of a county commissioner’s meeting.
“In 2007 I was hot. Mad. I’d wasted two years of my life trying to get it done,” he said. “I just kept complaining and kept doing my demonstrating and I thought something would happen. Charlottesville happened.”
In September, protests in Charlottesville, North Carolina grabbed national headlines when white supremacists flew in from all over the country to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. One person was killed in the protesting, and Confederate monuments became a topic of heated national debate all over the country. The next week more than a hundred Denton residents were out protesting the city’s monument. That was a number the county commission just couldn’t ignore.
“If you’re an elected official, people will get you to move off,” he said.
Hudspeth said that even with the issue he’s spent almost 20 years on finally moving forward, he wanted to make sure no one else had the difficulty with the county commissioner’s court that he did. He said that he wants to take a hands-on approach and improve transparency and make sure every decision is the best one for the people in the county — and making sure all of those decisions have clear explanations.
“I don’t know everything, so I will get into my motor vehicle, and I’ll go down there and I’ll find some groups that have a major interest in and I’ll just ask,” he said. “Here’s what my message is going to be to the voting public: I’m going to tell you exactly why I decide to vote a certain way.”
Running for a judgeship is the end of a long path of civic involvement for Hudspeth, 72. He was born in 1945 and went to a segregated school in Fort Worth. When he was a teenager, he joined the Black Panther party, but soon found himself in Vietnam. Hudspeth volunteered for the Air Force, where he served almost four years and exited as a sergeant, as a way to avoid being drafted involuntarily into the Army, which he saw as much more dangerous.
“The day I enlisted in the air force, they sent me my draft papers, so I passed that bullet,” he said. “I had to go where the fighting was, but I was in an airplane.”
It was in the Vietnam War, of all places, that Hudspeth learned that love was the answer in the fight for Civil Rights.
“Segregated schools. Vietnam? Integrated war,” he said. “The bullets will kill you, they don’t care what color you are. The guy behind you has got to have your back.”
By the time Hudspeth returned to North Texas in 1969, the national conversation had moved to other topics. He went to North Texas State University, which would become the University of North Texas in 1988, earning an undergraduate degree in business and a graduate degree in education. He taught middle school in Keller for 16 years, then transitioned back to Denton doing home repair. Four years ago, he opened his thrift shop Fantastic Sales, which has quickly become a fixture on the corner of Oak and Bonnie Brae.
Hudspeth made two promises — one, to speak directly with constituents, even if they bring up topics that aren’t on the agenda, and two, that he wouldn’t run a negative campaign. Hudspeth said he’d simply speak his mind, and if the voters want him, they’ll donate and vote.
“If they want me in the office, they’ll vote for me. I don’t have to make up nothing, I’m not going to lie, I’m going to tell the truth just like I see it,” he said.
Hudspeth is running for the Democratic nomination against Diana Leggett, for whom the Confederate monument is also a key issue. Primary elections are March 6. The winner will run against Republican Andy Eads, who has served on the county commissioner’s court for 11 years and is running unopposed for the Republican nomination.