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Monkey decorations at Wichita County Courthouse spur debate over racism in Wichita Falls

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To Wichita County Sheriff David Duke, the two plastic chimpanzees are simply cute decorations like the garden gnomes, little white pigs, Star Wars figure and other ornaments outside a back entrance to the Wichita County Courthouse.

A small courtyard at the Wichita County Courthouse is decorated with whimsical animals, statuettes, wind chimes, flowers and garden gnomes. Some people have complained about a couple of chimpanzees positioned in a tree. © TORIN HALSEY/TIMES RECORD NEWS A small courtyard at the Wichita County Courthouse is decorated with whimsical animals, statuettes, wind chimes, flowers and garden gnomes. Some people have complained about a couple of chimpanzees positioned in a tree.

“There’s nothing at all offensive out there,” Duke said. “It’s a chimpanzee, and he’s swinging on a little rope, and another one’s hanging on a tree.”

The chimp decorations on the tree are part of efforts that began several years ago among Wichita County Sheriff’s Office workers to beautify the patch of ground outside their back entrance, the sheriff said.

To others, the chimpanzees are troubling at the least. At the most, they are obscene symbols of racism that dehumanize Black people while displayed not far from the corner of Travis and Sixth streets in downtown Wichita Falls.

The North Texas town’s population is about 100,000 and is located around 150 miles northwest of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Community backlash

“Apparently, the people at the courthouse think they’re all right. I think it’s racist,” said Gene Newton, president of the Wichita County Democratic Association.

A white professor emeritus of education at MSU Texas, Newton said the decoration on the rope nearly looks like a small Black man hanging.

“In a way, it’s almost threatening lynching,” he said. “They call that tree the hanging tree.”

The Rev. Angus Thompson, an African American community activist based in the historically Black east side of Wichita Falls, had not seen the decorations but viewed photographs of them recently.

“They present a troubling picture,” Thompson, pastor of New Jerusalem Baptist church, said.

He hopes the sheriff removes the chimpanzees in light of complaints that they’re offensive.  

“That solves the problem. There’s no law that says it has to be there. It’s not going to catch any criminals,” Thompson said. “Just because it doesn’t affect him in a negative way, it might affect somebody else in a negative way.”

UPDATE: Duke said a few people protesting the Confederate monument Tuesday at City Hall showed up outside the courthouse to complain angrily about the decorations after hearing about them.

After discussions with the protestors and other county officials Tuesday night, Duke had the chimpanzee taken off the rope. It will go on the tree — but won’t be on a rope, the sheriff said late Wednesday afternoon. 

The latest round of criticism about the yard art comes in the wake of global protests that at times turned violent after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, on May 25 in Minneapolis.

Floyd lost his life after a white police officer put a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. His death triggered calls for change and police reform during rallies, including peaceful protests in Wichita Falls.

Duke said Floyd never should have died.

“We don’t do choke holds. We don’t put knees on people’s throats. I’ve never done that in my career,” said Duke, who has been in law enforcement 38 years. “Our law enforcement in this county, all of them are nothing like what happened in Minnesota.”

‘It was all cute things’

The sheriff said the area outside the WCSO back entrance used to be a magnet for trash that would blow there.

For instance, prisoners getting out of the jail in the courthouse would open property bags and throw them on the street, but the entrance where the decorations are isn’t a public one, and jail occupants don’t use it.

“So we put a little picket fence up there,” Duke said. “The first things that were put in there were two pink flamingos and a sign that said, ‘Don’t feed the birds.’”

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Then gnomes showed up, along with an alien, R2-D2 memorabilia and small ceramic dolls climbing over the fence, Duke said.

“It was all cute things. There was nothing racial, violent, mean, hurting people’s feelings, trying to degrade anything about it,” he said. “It’s just part of this movement across this great United States of people trying to think that all cops are racist.”

a man wearing a uniform posing for the camera: Wichita County Sheriff David Duke © Photo: Courtesy Sheriff David Duke Wichita County Sheriff David Duke

But the Sheriff’s Office is not racially motivated for any reason and treats everyone the same whether they live on the east side of Wichita Falls, Burkburnett, the country club area or Faith Village where Duke grew up, he said.

“The only way as sheriff you need to treat people is treat them right,” Duke said.

But Newton said such likenesses have a long history going back to just after the Civil War of being demeaning representations of Black people.

“What is behind that is, if you can take an ethnic group and make them into animals, … you take their humanity,” he said. “It means that you don’t have to treat them like other human beings.”

What’s more, thousands of African Americans live and pay taxes in Wichita County, he said.

“People should not be taxed to pay for things that basically dehumanize them,” Newton said. “Maybe they just ought to offer an apology to the African American community for racial insensitivity.”

He doesn’t think the chimpanzee decorations reflect well on the community as a whole.

a person standing in front of a building: Tanner Lucking holds a sign at Monday afternoon's protest downtown in this June 1, 2020, file photo. © TORIN HALSEY/TIMES RECORD NEWS Tanner Lucking holds a sign at Monday afternoon’s protest downtown in this June 1, 2020, file photo.

“What it says is you’re racist because you’re from Wichita Falls,” Newton said. “That’s not who we are.”

He has strong convictions about systemic racial injustice.

“White people established institutional racism, and it seems to me that white people are obligated to take it down and get rid of it,” Newton said.

More: As Confederate memorials draw fire, Capitol monuments remain but removals in North Texas

Thompson talked about racism.   

“You don’t have to be overtly racist, conscious of the things that you’re doing to be a racist,” he said. “You don’t have to even perform a choke hold to be a racist. That’s not it. … But the impact of the things that we do on other people can make us a racist.”

Thompson knows Duke.  

“He’s a good man,” Thompson said.

If the sheriff gives it some more thought, then he will likely come to the conclusion the decorations should come down, Thompson said.

“I’m praying that the county judge and the commissioners court would give it some thought, and say, ‘Well, maybe we ought to remove that. That could be offensive to somebody,’ ” Thompson said.

Complaint left unresolved 

Newton noted that he complained to a county official about the decorations around six months ago, but nothing happened.

The chimpanzees did come off the tree for a time before the Strollin’ for Peace protest June 6. Hundreds marched from the east side of Wichita Falls to the courthouse. It was a peaceful event.

The WCSO prepared just in case. 

a group of people holding a sign: Protesters march down 7th Street during Strollin' 4 Peace Saturday, June 6,2020. The march started in Spudder Park and ended at the Wichita Couty Courthouse. © Lauren Roberts/Times Record News Protesters march down 7th Street during Strollin’ 4 Peace Saturday, June 6,2020. The march started in Spudder Park and ended at the Wichita Couty Courthouse.

“We took everything down, including a very large rock that this one particular deputy paid for out of his own pocket, that had our sheriff’s badge on it,” Duke said.

That was so no one would throw any of the ornaments through a courthouse window if the rally went south.

“But we didn’t do anything or show any kind of aggressive force about anything during that entire protest,” Duke said. “We obviously believe in the right to voice your opinion, and everybody has the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.”

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Some have brought their complaints about the chimp decorations in the small courtyard tucked in an area across a parking lot at the courthouse to the attention of the Times Record News. 

In addition, a post shared Tuesday in a local Facebook group, Wichita Falls Area Rants, Raves and Ridiculousness, showed a photo of the chimp ornaments and took issue with them. Many of those writing nearly 200 comments echoed Duke.

“I seriously would NEVER see those monkeys and think racism,” one women wrote.

Duke has noted they are chimpanzees and not monkeys. 

In any case, talk of possibly racist decorations at the courthouse irritates Duke, who has weathered foul language on their account.

He said a woman once called county law-enforcement officers “racist pigs” and made other off-color remarks because of them. 

The complaints also seemed to rile him because he said he treats everyone equally, following lessons learned from his father.

“My dad used to tell me as far as any person of color, it’s not the color of the skin that matters,” Duke said. “It’s the heart and soul of the man that makes him a man.”

Sheriff Duke is not that  David Duke 

Duke, whose full name is John David Duke, said he had to set the record straight at times while running for sheriff.

Another David Duke is a well-known neo-Nazi, white Supremacist, Holocaust denier and Ku Klux Klan leader who has served in the Louisiana House of Representatives.

“I had to explain to them, I’m not the guy under the white hood. That’s another guy. He’s a nut. I don’t believe anything in his beliefs,” Duke said.

And he is not related to that other David Duke, the sheriff said.

Duke said he has in fact sought and won the support of Black pastors on the east side of town.

He recalled once attending a Black church service, the only white person there, and hearing the minister pay him the biggest compliment he’s ever had as a sheriff.

“He told his congregation that I’m colorblind because I don’t treat people a certain way because they are any color. He treats everybody the same way,” Duke said. “I just really appreciate it because that’s the way I feel. That’s the way I am.”

Trish Choate, enterprise watchdog reporter for the Times Record News, covers education, courts, breaking news, politics and more. Contact Trish with news tips at tchoate@gannett.com. Her Twitter handle is @Trishapedia

This article originally appeared on Wichita Falls Times Record News: UPDATED: Chimpanzee decorations at Wichita County Courthouse spur debate over racism in Wichita Falls