As memorials to slavers and other Confederate heroes have been removed from public and otherwise challenged in recent months, a common complaint is that, by doing this, we’re forgetting our history or erasing it.
In my home county, we still have the historical marker its namesake:
Created February 26, 1887 from Tom Green County organized January 15, 1891, named in honor of Matthew Duncan Ector 1822-1879. Member of the Texas legislature a confederate officer and outstanding jurist Odessa, The County Seat.
Indeed, Ector (his first name was actually spelled Mathew) was a Confederate brigadier general and later a Texas high court judge. As a jurist, he’s most notable for re-affirming racist marriage laws after Reconstruction.
In 1878’s Charles Frasher v. the State of Texas, presiding judge Ector wrote:
The provision of the Texas code making marriage of a white person to a negro an indictable offense is not repugnant to or avoided by the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the constitution of the United States, or the legislation of Congress under them.The fact that by the code the penalty is imposed on the white person only, does not make it obnoxious to the Civil Rights Bill.
The opinion later quotes the source of that penalty, article 2016 of the Texas Criminal Code passed in 1858, stating that a white person couldn’t marry someone with any great-grandparent identified as black, except on fear of punishment “by confinement in the penitentiary not less than two nor more than five years.” In 1879, the Texas legislature extended that to black spouses as well.
Otherwise, as District Judge then on the Criminal Appeals Court, I couldn’t find any especially laudable or even notable rulings up to Ector’s death, also in 1879.
What about before the Civil War? Ector was a Georgia legislator and a Texas legislator; legislatively, I couldn’t find anything of note credited to his efforts in Georgia or Texas. He was a lawyer and husband, a widower several times over, but, at least from the age of 13 upon his inheritance, always a slaver and a defender of slave society.
If that was just a typical part of Southern life, it’s worth asking what exactly that means.
In August 1860, a structure fire near Ector’s adopted home in East Texas resulted in a wave of violent paranoia, an insurrection panic suspecting a vast, imagined abolitionist conspiracy common to Southerners of that time.
Ector himself initially claimed he thought “negroes had but little to do with it”, but he feared armies of abolitionists had come to poison wells and burn down whole towns in Texas. The Vigilance Committee that Ector lead ultimately decided a white man of Northern extraction and suspected of abolitionist sympathies, ought to be hanged, dragged to death behind a horse, and his corpse shot up in the town square. A black woman, his servant, they threatened into confessing then hanged her, too. More were arrested, interrogated, tortured after.
So this was Ector’s life and what he proactively supported. This is what the sort of society he volunteered to kill people in order to maintain.
Again, Ector volunteered and rose to Brigadier General in the Confederate Army; he lost a leg in that effort. But an effort for what?
Ector contributed in the military campaign to kill hundreds of thousands of his fellow Americans in order to defend the (state’s) right of some rich folk to continue enslaving millions of their fellow Americans—a barbarism that regularly included kidnapping, torture, and rape to strengthen itself, a barbarism regarded in its own time as abhorrent.
If you honestly believe chattel slavery is an indefensible evil, don’t let yourself speed through that admission any faster than you’d say, “Other than eating people alive” or “Setting aside the child molestation.” If you lived in Gary Glitter County, the quality of his music would likely not make you feel less queasy. If your town square had a statue to Jeffry Dahmer, the quality of his military service would not relevant.
Now, there may be some evidence in the Texas Legislature archives relating to the discussion of HB113, 20th Regular Session of 1887 as to what specifically Ector did to earn a county named after him. Yet based on the culture at the time and what it sought to celebrate, it seems clear it’s related to his consistent efforts to make things as difficult as possible for non-whites to be regarded as actual people every chance he got.
One day, the students at John H. Reagan Elementary or Bowie Middle School may be taught the words and deeds of their founders. Till then history in Ector County and elsewhere will continue to be ignored or fabricated, due as much to statues and plaques as their absence.