As monuments fall across the country, Kaufman’s statue looms large before the courthouse door. What do these statues represent? Many claim they preserve our heritage and history, but they can’t do that; they’re meant to obscure it.
In February of 1861, Kaufman voted to secede, adopting Texas’s Declaration of Causes by a margin of three to one. The purpose of secession was to preserve slavery. Attacking the “debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color,” as “at war with nature,” the Declaration states plainly that “the African race” is “rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”
American slavery was legalized human trafficking that pressed blacks into permanent servitude, with worth measured in stolen labor. Where cotton was profitable, slavery made fortunes for wealthy whites. In the 60 years separating 1800 from the Civil War, the average cotton picked per slave more than tripled. With profits measured in pounds, slaves were driven with whip and scale.
In 1860 Texas residents held 182,566 slaves, or 30% of the population. Five hundred thirty-three slaves made up about 14% of Kaufman’s population. Two days before holding the secession vote, Kaufman’s commissioners appointed eight armed detachments “to patrol the negroes.” On the eve of war, the first priority was policing Black bodies.
The early 1910’s saw a proliferation of Confederate monuments sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and its allies. Erected in 1911 and dedicated by Katie Daffin, a UDC leader whose father was among Texas’s earliest Klansmen, Kaufman’s statue was inscribed with “Glory to Their Cause” and dedicated to Confederate soldiers and their fight “For Their Constitution.” Addressing the Kaufman crowd, Daffin praised “the Confederate Government, Civil and Military.” But the “Constitution” Confederates fought for was the one they adopted in 1861, a document explicitly recognizing “negro slavery” as a bedrock institution.
1912 saw the election of President Wilson, who made Birth of a Nation the first film screened in the White House. Its account of the heroism of the Ku Klux Klan caused a Klan revival. In the 1920s, the Dallas chapter of the KKK boasted 13,000 members, a third of the eligible population.
Before the war, white supremacy was legally protected and enforced. By 1911, neo-confederates were whitewashing the brutality of slavery and the sting of defeat. The 1904 United Daughters of the Confederacy Catechism for Children admitted that Confederates fought “to regulate their own affairs and to hold slaves as property.” But the slaves were “faithful and devoted” to their masters, who treated their slaves “with great kindness and care in nearly all cases.” Asked whether the Confederacy was defeated, children were to answer: “No. It was overpowered by numbers and its resources exhausted.”
We can trace the popular myth of “states’ rights” to the United Daughters and their allies, whose members wrote and distributed mythical histories of the KKK, the Lost Cause, and the White Man’s Burden in schoolhouses across the south.
In 1911, the new statue in Kaufman County stood as a monument to the failure of Reconstruction, and the reconstitution of White supremacy under Jim Crow and the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery but left a loophole for people convicted of crimes.
Southern states reacted by criminalizing Black life. Texas, too, adopted “Black codes,” which were laws against loitering, vagrancy, trespass, breaking curfew, or simply being in public without a permit. Even minor infractions—real or fabricated—of racial etiquette were punished by fines and imprisonment. Southern Whites seamlessly recast Blacks from slaves to criminals, and again profited from their forced labor. In Kaufman, the place we call the “Poor Farm” was an early site of convict labor and leasing.
In 1956, just two years after Brown v. Board of Education, the statue rose again at the new Courthouse. Kaufman’s schools wouldn’t see integration until 1967. The franchise to vote would not arrive until 1965, while the statue guarded the building where votes were tallied.
Just as the Confederacy was a treason against the United States and a moral outrage against Black freedom cruelly cast as a heroic struggle for liberty, so the statue stands as a monument to White supremacy cast as a tribute to American soldiers.
Our Kaufman County Courthouse should embody our civic commitment to justice and equality before the law. Let us remember our actual past, and build better monuments for our future.
Blinn E. Combs is a fifth-generation Kaufmanite who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas and a law degree from Georgia State University College of Law.