The Jaybird “Our Heroes” Monument has long been the subject of controversy in Fort Bend County and especially amid the social unrest in Houston and across the United States following the May 25 death of George Floyd.
State Rep. Ron Reynolds, along with a group of activists wearing shirts featuring the famous words of late Georgia Congressman John Lewis – a reminder of their goal to cause “good trouble” in the pursuit of social change – delivered an emotional address Monday to the gaggle of reporters and observers who had gathered just steps from Richmond City Hall.
A day removed from the 131st anniversary of one of the bloodiest days in Richmond history, known as the Jaybird-Woodpecker War between rival Democratic Party factions, Reynolds recounted how the Jaybirds disenfranchised African-Americans in Richmond and Fort Bend County by not allowing them to run for public office or vote in primary elections from 1889-1953.
“We can’t romanticize it,” Reynolds said. “It was bloody. People died. And what were they fighting for? Just like in this country, the Civil War was fought between the Union and the Confederates over slavery. The battle that took place 131 years ago today was to prevent people like me from serving this county and this country. That’s what this battle was about. It was about white supremacy.”
Several petitions have circulated online requesting the removal of the monument, including one from Samantha Rodgers and another from Taral Patel, the chief of staff of County Judge KP George. As of Monday, the two petitions had received a combined 3,761 signatures. In addition, an online survey is available until Friday. Those interested can voice their opinions on what they believe the fate of the monument should be.
Reynolds, the county’s first African-American elected to the Texas House of Representatives in the post-Reconstruction era, drew a stark contrast between Lewis and H.H. Frost, L.E. Gibson, and J.M. Shamblin, the three Jaybirds memorialized on the monument. Reynolds also mentioned his predecessors like former Fort Bend County Sheriff Walter Moses Burton, the first Black person elected as a sheriff in the U.S.
“(Lewis) was fighting for voting rights,” Reynolds said. “He was fighting so that people who wanted to go vote, they didn’t have to pass literacy tests. … Those are heroes. Those are the people we want to honor.”
Philip Bartholomew, the treasurer of the Fort Bend County Young Democrats and a member of the Fort Bend County Historical Commission, said leaving the monument up erases the history of those who were murdered or oppressed during the era of Jim Crow laws.
“To leave this monument up is to erase history,” Bartholomew said. “Because it erases the criminal nature of the Jaybirds, who could not claim to fight for freedom or independence, merely power and control. … It erases how democracy, our form of government, was overthrown right here in our own county.”
Juan Perales, a longtime Richmond resident, said merely removing the monument from the public square was not enough.
“In actuality, when this monument was put together, it was a bid for immortality,” Perales said. “Something that I am completely against. People want to remove it and put it in a museum. I want to carry it a little deeper. I want to destroy it. … A way to solidify the way people think and bring it to the present.”
Reynolds said the advancements in social justice pioneered by African-Americans in Fort Bend County exceeded that of nearly any other place in the South during the Reconstruction era. But he said it was undone by the violence of Jaybirds who refused to acknowledge emancipation and the integration of African-Americans into society.
“That battle, it eradicated a lot of the progress that was made during Reconstruction,” Reynolds said. “Fort Bend was a bastion for the slave trade. That’s how we had many of the prosperous property owners that had cotton fields and sugar canes, and that’s how Fort Bend really grew in its prominence, on the backs of slaves.”
Reynolds echoed the suggestions of the petition-makers for candidates to replace Frost, Gibson, and Shamblin, saying he “stood on the shoulders” of Burton, who was also a four-term state senator. Others floated as examples for a new monument included John Terry, Arizona Fleming and Willie Melton, plaintiffs in a 1953 U.S. Supreme Court case that ended the practice of white-only primaries in Fort Bend County.