During Tuesday’s City Council meeting in McKinney, the night began with a call for unity from a citizen to the council during the public comment section. “I am here to reach a happy medium, a compromise,” he told the council and their constituents, both those watching the meeting unfold online and those who showed up in person.
He was the second speaker from the community of the night but not the only one claiming now is a time for leadership from McKinney Mayor George Fuller. For decades, the statue of Confederate General and Texas Governor James W. Throckmorton has overlooked the downtown McKinney square. It is time, he and others say, for the statue to come down.
“I’m all for history, but I’m requesting the board consider removing the statue and placing it at Pecan Grove,” the citizen speaker said. Pecan Grove Cemetery is a historical McKinney cemetery and the resting place for Confederate soldiers and Throckmorton himself.
He then addressed another issue on the council’s docket: the rescheduling of a recall election for District 1 Councilman La’Shadion Shemwell. Shemwell’s life, both his private life and his actions as an activist, have lost him credibility with greater McKinney, as has his October 2019 declaration of a Black State of Emergency. “I’m here tonight to say, Don’t send us back to 1964 when the Klan marched in this city when I was in 2nd grade,” he concluded. “Respect the position if not the person.”
On Tuesday night, these two issues—the removal of the Throckmorton statue and the recall election of McKinney’s second Black councilman—conflated on McKinney’s council floor. It’s obvious that the council is struggling to rise to the occasion or find common ground with their own citizens who have been empowered by a nationwide movement to call for an end to systemic racism.
One woman whose uncle had died earlier that day claimed the statue reminds her of the suffering her grandparents endured. She also delivers a pointed message to Mayor George Fuller, who along with his wife adopted a Black girl from Africa. Fuller’s detractors often accuse him of using his Black daughter as a shield against their claims that he is racist.
It is a claim that he denies.
“We know how hard it is to be Black in McKinney,” the woman stressed. “I don’t care if you’ve got Black people in your family. Until you are Black in McKinney, you don’t know.”
An overwhelming thread among the speakers was that they are tired of talking and are ready to be heard. As one woman said, “These are people telling you how they feel and you don’t get it. If you did care, it would have taken one meeting.”
Though the public comments at the beginning were focused on the Throckmorton statue, it was the council’s second-to-last order of business. But when it came time for the council to discuss the statue, all Fuller could do was tell them that the council’s power is limited to appointing a committee to decide the matter. “A lot of people have said take the statue down, take the statue down,” Fuller said.
He pointed out that it is not that easy. “First of all, it is not legal for us, we can’t make that decision to take it down.” It will be the ad hoc committee’s job to listen to citizens and make their recommendation, not the council’s. “There’s no way to take the statue down and move it until they have a permit and it’s approved. For people who say, ‘It’s easy, be a leader,’—that’s against the law,” he said firmly before moving on.
The final order of business was whether two items would be added to the election ballot in November: the recall election of La’Shadion Shemwell and the possible sale of a strip of wetlands between the Heard Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary and a landfill. The land happens to be in Shemwell’s district. (A representative from the Heard spoke, asking them not to sell, as the land is used by the wildlife who come to their sanctuary.)
Everyone except for Shemwell voted to add these items to the election ballot, meaning both these items will be decided in November.
“How did we get here?” Shemwell asked after the vote. “It’s an interesting time we’re sitting in.”
Recently, Shemwell sat down with a member of the McGowen family, a legacy family in McKinney who live in District 1. There’s an elementary school that bears the McGowen name. He heard from Mrs. McGowen that McKinney’s Mayor Pro Tem Rainey Rogers visited her with gifts and asked her to speak against some residents that were in attendance at the council meeting. “I wonder,” he continued, “how often he goes to visit our legacy families in District 1?”
He went on to recall the way he felt when he first ran for office and his hope that he would inspire his community, which was underrepresented, to fill the city council chambers. He imagined himself at the head of a movement. “I was really excited about changing this community, showing people by example how to turn their lives around.”
Shemwell grew up poor, he claimed, and didn’t have the benefit of a great education or a stable upbringing. He cited a childhood in the projects, his time living on the streets, his experiences being racially profiled, and acknowledged that he has been arrested in both Collin and Dallas counties. He is a man who has made mistakes, but said he is not one who wanted to be defined by them.
He began crying. “These people say, ‘You’ve been in trouble but pick yourself up and go make something of yourself.’ When I tried to do that, these people still talked about me like a dog.”
For his three years on council, his community, he claimed, didn’t show up for him. He was left to bring up issues alone, which he said made him an easy target for the other white council members who didn’t agree with his activism.
“Now that you’ve been awoken and you know what you need to do as a community, when I’m no longer in this seat, you can still show up every Tuesday and represent for your community,” he told the crowd. “All power to the people.”
Councilman Frederick Frazier spoke next. “I know you don’t like the statue,” Frazier told the crowd. “I understand that. … It’s been here for 109 years and this is the first time a committee has been put together, I think that’s pretty impressive that the council has come up with that.”
It was a statement that possibly would have gone over better if Fraizer hadn’t gone on to say that the Throckmorton statue was “just a rock,” which immediately earned an uproar from the people who had come specifically to speak about it.
“I didn’t come from some great background either,” said Frazier, referencing Shemwell’s story. “I know I look like [Andy Griffith Show’s] Opie, I get it. I didn’t come from some place where it was given to me. I had to go earn it. And I earned it on the streets as well.”
There was another offended swell from the citizens. All he had communicated to them was that he had missed the point.
Mayor Pro Tem Rainey Rogers used his time to contradict Shemwell’s account of his conversation with the McGowens. Rogers claimed that he only went to see them to ask whether the statue bothered them, and that they both told him that it did not. “Mr. Shemwell is once again talking about something he doesn’t have any idea about.”
Shemwell replied that he had an email from Mrs. McGowen stating that she wants the statue gone from the square. “Tell the truth. Shall I read the email?” he challenged while Mayor Fuller attempted to call for order.
“All I know is when I asked her, she said it never bothered her,” Rogers added.
Mayor Fuller told the crowd that he had also talked to the much-discussed Mrs. McGowen but refrained from commenting on the issue of her opinion. “What I’ll say is this,” he said. “No one ever needs to ask the question, ‘How did we get here?’ We already know the answer. It starts with taking responsibility and accountability to own what you do.”
“Are you going to own what you do?” Shemwell interjected.
Fuller reminded citizens that there is a code of conduct for speaking in council and that there is a way they must conduct their business. “If anyone asks how we got here, look in a mirror,” he said and adjourned the meeting.