BELTON — It was a day of celebration for a large crowd of Bell County residents.
With a band leading the rabble of people from a school on North Main Street, the throng marched down to the Bell County Courthouse.
There, on the northwest corner of the grounds, an object draped in red and white loomed above the crowd.
The music commenced. The strings of “I Wish I Were in Dixie,” the de facto anthem of the long-defeated Confederate States of America, radiated through downtown Belton.
As the ensemble played the Southern tune, Leland Means, a member of the Bell County chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, yanked a cord, unveiling the hidden entity.
There it was: A marble 7-foot-tall statue of an unnamed Confederate soldier; a memorial to the veterans from Bell County who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
That day was Dec. 16, 1916 — more than 51 years after Union forces vanquished the Confederacy in the Civil War.
That scene, reported by the Temple Daily Telegram at the time, stands in stark contrast to the present.
What’s going on in 2017?
More than 101 years since the memorial was erected, some Bell County residents want the Confederate soldier statue relocated to a more appropriate location where the monument can be placed in the context of history.
The Temple NAACP proposal comes amid a national dialogue — sparked by a white supremacist rally in Virginia — on how Confederacy memorials are viewed.
On Tuesday after the Temple Daily Telegram reported a group met with some of the Bell County Commissioners Court to start a conversation on the statue, a tsunami of comments flooded the newspaper’s Facebook page.
For many Bell County residents, the Confederate soldier statue has come to represent the hatred and racism from a bygone era that should not be glorified.
For others, the carving is a memorial to their family members who fought for their rights and neighbors in the Civil War.
A group approached Bennie Walsh, Temple NAACP president, to be their voice on finding a resolution to the local Confederate memorial.
“People have wanted to say it before but they’re afraid,” Walsh said, echoing a comment he told the Bell County Commissioners. “I’m just part of the committee that was asked to be on the team with them.”
“It has nothing to do with me or the NAACP, it was community people who felt this way,” he added.
Last year, when the Temple Daily Telegram examined area memorials to the Confederacy, Bell County nor the city of Belton received requests to move the Confederate statue or rename the city’s Confederate Park.
Walsh said he and others do not want to remove history. Instead, he said, they are seeking to remove something else.
“What I’m hoping what will come out of this most of all is we remove the hate that is going on around the world, as the comments on your Facebook page (show) you can see the hate,” Walsh said. “What we would like to do is remove the hate.”
The Confederate statue, in Walsh’s opinion, is not the sole monument that needs to be changed.
Belton’s Confederate Park
During Walsh’s meeting with the Commissioners Court, he brought up Confederate Park, the 16.2-acre grounds along Nolan Creek and near Interstate 35.
Belton does not have any prominent signs declaring the name of Confederate Park on or near its property. Only two signs refer to the park: a street sign denoting Confederate Boulevard, the road that cuts through the park, and a directional sign on Central Avenue that points to the Belton Park and Ride at Confederate Park.
Belton, the county seat, once had a Confederate Park sign a few years ago, city spokesman Paul Romer said. But when the sign needed to be replaced, the city opted to not restore the sign, he said.
“When I saw that sign that said Confederate Park, to me it said ‘Whites only,’” Walsh told the commissioners, who have no authority over the park.
In 1892, the Ex-Confederate Association of Bell County gave Confederate Park to the city.
Walsh plans to meet with city staff and the mayor to start discussing a possible name change for Confederate Park — something already in the city’s policy books.
Belton’s facility renaming policy
Residents can request to rename a facility, such as a park, by filling out an application with the city clerk and paying a $75 application fee. The policy has never been used.
“Once the clerk has it, I think, it would be screened by the parks board and then the (City) Council would be able to consider it at that point,” Romer said, adding no one has requested or asked about the policy.
While the facility renaming process has not been used, Belton has renamed streets. The street renaming process was last successfully used in March 2013 when West Ninth Avenue was changed to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in the area of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Walsh suggested the park could be renamed Freedom Park or Jubilee Park because many of the city’s Fourth of July celebrations are held at Confederate Park.
Renaming the park is an “easier battle than removing the statue,” Walsh said.
‘A compelling story’
Renaming the park would remove part of a compelling story, Romer said.
“In Belton, people can walk on a trail from Confederate Park all the way to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue,” the Belton spokesman said. “Along the way they can make a stop at the hub of local government (Harris Community Center), which is a former segregated school house. Now that’s a compelling story of the progress Belton has made in the past 150 years and that America has made.”
Mayor Marion Grayson views herself as an amateur historian, whose passion for history began when she was just a child.
Similar to how Confederate Park is part of Belton’s tale, the Civil War, while an unfortunate story, is a chapter of American history, Grayson said.
“I want to say that we don’t want to lose the story and the lesson that comes with the story,” the lifelong Beltonian said. “We have Confederate Park on one end of town and we have Martin Luther King Avenue at the other end of the trail.”
“We’ve come a long way. Bell County has. Texas has,” Grayson said. “I think making the story go away, what would that do for our future generations?”
When asked if Belton and the City Council would be open to creating an event to teach residents more about Bell County’s history during the Civil War, the mayor said it is a great idea.
Bell County’s Civil War history
In 1860 — just one year before the Civil War broke out — there were 1,005 slaves and 179 slaveholders in Bell County, according to the U.S. Census of the same year.
Only two men in Bell County owned as many as 30 slaves: John B. Reed, who had 33 slaves, and Sterling C. Robertson, who held 30 slaves, according to a master’s thesis by University of Texas at Austin student Bertha Atkinson published in 1929.
Prior to the statewide referendum on secession in the Lone Star State, two newspapers in Bell County had different views on the Civil War.
The Highland Eagle was pro-slavery and wanted “to spread far and wide the truths as to slavery, its divine origin and beneficent effects,” according to an editorial published by the newspaper.
The Belton Independent, the first newspaper in Bell County, opposed secession and supported Texas Gov. Sam Houston on keeping the state in the United States.
Two secession votes were taken — during the presidential election on Nov. 6, 1860, and on Feb. 23, 1861. In that February decision, which was the largest in Bell County’s history, local voters were in favor of Texas seceding from the United States.
A total of 1,037 men from Bell County, which had a white population of about 4,000 at the time, served in the Confederate army, according to Atkinson’s thesis.
As for the statue, Commissioners Russell Schneider and Bill Schumann said during their meeting on Tuesday that it is simply history. The soldier monument, they said, should be used as a way to teach history.
“You use monuments, such as that, as teaching tools to teach people that is not the way you live in this society,” Schumann said.
The Confederate statue is different than those that are dedicated to a specific person in the Confederacy, Bell County Judge Jon Burrows said.
“What I see on our statue versus others — you may disagree — other places where they have taken down statues, they were statues with no connection to the location,” Burrows said.
Burrows suggested that a plaque explaining the statue and what it has come to represent for some people could be placed next to the unidentified Confederate soldier standing on the corner of the courthouse grounds.
Another possible solution would be to erect another statue; perhaps one of Jeff Hamilton, a former slave turned right-hand man of Sam Houston, the sole governor of a future Confederate state to oppose secession.
Yet another idea could be changing the Confederate soldier statue’s inscription from saying “Confederate heroes” to “Confederate veterans.”
All represent, Walsh describes, “Band-Aid solutions.”
“If they’re not going to move (the statue), which is something I really believe they’re not going to do, that’s just a patch or Band-Aid, as you would say,” Walsh said of Burrows’ plaque idea. “If you want to Band-Aid it up, OK that’s fine, that’s fine. I have no problem with that. It’s just a Band-Aid, it’s not going to remove the problem.”
Putting up a statue of a former slave would cause a visceral reaction from some in Bell County, Walsh said.
“I don’t know if it would help out because the hate is still going to be there,” he said. “I think that there will be a lot more hatred going on then. They’re going to say, ‘Oh now — excuse the word — here we go with this “N” up here now.’”
The same would be true if the word “heroes” is removed from the statue, Walsh said.
“It’s just going to make them worse, those who have that hate in them, you’re taking that recognition of my ancestor’s heroism away,” he said. “I don’t think that would do very well at all.”
Those who want to see the statue moved, Walsh said, want people to understand one thing: “We’re not trying to remove history. Some history has its rightful place.”