About a week later, on April 21, 2017, I took a quick ride to the two county courthouses closest to me, in Travis and Williamson Counties. The seat of Williamson County is Georgetown. The county courthouse in Georgetown is the centerpiece of a bustling and historic town square, truly a treasure.
As you can see, out in front of the courthouse is a statue commemorating Confederate soldiers and sailors. It was placed there in 1916, fifty years after the end of the Civil War, but during the height of the Jim Crow era and the time when the Ku Klux Klan was gaining popularity in Texas. About 40 county courthouses in Texas have a Confederate monument, and most of them were erected during this period.
Interestingly enough, Williamson County was one of a handful of counties in Texas that voted against secession in 1861.
I am among many residents of the county who think, at the very least, there should be a plaque added to put this display into its proper historic context. To many people, in particular the descendants of slaves over whom the Confederacy fought to keep enslaved, the monument is a painful reminder of that history. But the statue is also a reminder of the era in which it was erected, when America’s laws and institutions still conspired to block access of black Americans to their full liberties and pursuit of happiness.
More than a monument, it is an ever fresh scar that should motivate us to resist hatred in all its forms and work for our common good.
[Update: in June 2020, I met with a local reporter to talk about my rides. Here is the story.]
But the Williamson County courthouse is most famous for a trial that took place there from 1923-24. The case was brought against several members of the KKK, not for crimes they had committed against blacks, but for beating up a white man. It was the first successful prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan anywhere in the nation. The guilty verdicts weakened the political power of the Klan in Texas. The young DA who brought the case, Dan Moody, would go on to beat a Klan-backed candidate for Attorney General in 1924. In 1926, he would become the youngest person ever elected governor of Texas, at the age of 33. There is a also statue of Dan Moody on the grounds of the Williamson County courthouse.
The Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse in Austin also has a special story. It is best told through the historical marker that stands in front of the courthouse, which is named for the story’s hero. (I’ve transcribed the text below the photo)
“Despite outstanding academic credentials, Heman Marion Sweatt, a black man, was denied admission to the University of Texas School of Law in February 1946 because of his race. In May 1946, Mr. Sweatt challenged the University’s segregationist admissions policies by filing suit against T.S. Painter, the President of the University of Texas, in the 126th Judicial District Court of Travis County, Texas. Supported by the NAACP Thurgood Marshall, a future United States Supreme Court Justice, argued the case of Sweatt v Painter here in the Travis County Courthouse. The trial judge ruled against Mr. Sweatt and upheld the University’s policy of refusing to admit persons of color.
On June 5, 1950, after a four-year court battle, the United States Supreme Court reversed the 126th District Court and ordered Mr. Sweatt admitted to the University of Texas Law School as its first black student. By his courage, perseverance and sacrifice, Heman Marion Sweatt helped ensure the opportunity to achieve a higher education for all persons in Texas and throughout the United States.”