An average of $18,000 in county monies each year since 2011, plus $80,000 in state renovation funds in 2017 alone, have been devoted to this memorial to Toombs, who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States after the war and fled to Cuba and France to avoid arrest. Upon his return to Georgia, Toombs labored to circumscribe the freedom of African-Americans. “Give us a convention,” Toombs said in 1876, “and I will fix it so that the people shall rule and the Negro shall never be heard from.” The following year he got that convention, which passed a poll tax and other measures to disenfranchise black men.
It’s difficult to imagine that all the Confederate monuments and historic sites dotting the landscape today would have been established if African-Americans had had a say in the matter.
Historically, the installation of Confederate monuments went hand in hand with the disenfranchisement of black people. The historical record suggests that monument-building peaked during three pivotal periods: from the late 1880s into the 1890s, as Reconstruction was being crushed; from the 1900s through the 1920s, with the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan, the increase in lynching and the codification of Jim Crow; and in the 1950s and 1960s, around the centennial of the war but also in reaction to advances in civil rights. An observation by the Yale historian David Blight, describing a “Jim Crow reunion” at Gettysburg, captures the spirit of Confederate monument-building, when “white supremacy might be said to have been the silent, invisible, master of ceremonies.”
Yet courageous black leaders did speak out, right from the start. In 1870, Douglass wrote, “Monuments to the ‘lost cause’ will prove monuments of folly … in the memories of a wicked rebellion which they must necessarily perpetuate…It is a needless record of stupidity and wrong.”
A protest in Richmond, Virginia, against neo-Confederate group the New CSA, which had gathered at the Robert E. Lee Statue on Monument Avenue.Image: Brian Palmer/The Investigative Fund
In 1931, W.E.B. Du Bois criticized even simple statues erected to honor Confederate leaders. “The plain truth of the matter,” Du Bois wrote, “would be an inscription something like this: ‘sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.’”
In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. joined a voting rights rally in Grenada, Mississippi, at the Jefferson Davis monument, where, earlier that day, an organizer named Robert Green declared, “We want brother Jefferson Davis to know the Mississippi he represented, the South he represented, will never stand again.”
In today’s debates about the public display of Confederate symbols, the strong objections of early African-American critics are seldom remembered, perhaps because they had no impact on (white) officeholders at the time. But the urgent black protests of the past now have the ring of prophecy.
John Mitchell Jr., an African-American, was a journalist and a member of Richmond’s city council just after Reconstruction. Like his friend and colleague Ida B. Wells, Mitchell was born into slavery, and spent much of his career documenting lynchings and campaigning against them; also like Wells, he was personally threatened with lynching.
Arguing fiercely against spending public money to memorialize the Confederacy, Mitchell took aim at the movement to erect a grand Robert E. Lee statue, and tried to block funding for the proposed statue’s dedication ceremony. But a white conservative majority steamrolled Mitchell and the two other black council members, and the Lee statue was unveiled on May 29, 1890. Gov. Fitzhugh Lee, a nephew of Lee and a former Confederate general himself, was president of the Lee Monument Association, which executed the project. Virginia issued bonds to support its construction. The city of Richmond funded Dedication Day events, attended by some 150,000 people.
Mitchell covered the celebration for the Richmond Planet, the paper he edited. “This glorification of States Rights Doctrine—the right of secession, and the honoring of men who represented that cause,” he wrote, “fosters in the Republic, the spirit of Rebellion and will ultimately result in the handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood.”
In the past decade, Virginia has spent $174,000 to maintain the Lee statue, which has become a lightning rod for the larger controversy. In 2017, Richmond police spent some $500,000 to guard the monument and keep the peace during a neo-Confederate protest there.
- The UDC, a women’s Confederate heritage group with thousands of members, is arguably the leading advocate for Confederate memorials, and it has a history of racist propagandizing.
In 1902, several years after nearly every African-American elected official was driven from office in Virginia, and as blacks were being systematically purged from voter rolls, the state’s all-white legislature established an annual allocation for the care of Confederate graves. Over time, we found, that spending has totaled roughly $9 million in today’s dollars.
Treating the graves of Confederate soldiers with dignity might not seem like a controversial endeavor. But the state has refused to extend the same dignity to the African-American men and women whom the Confederacy fought to keep enslaved. Black lawmakers have long pointed out this blatant inequity. In 2017, the legislature finally passed the Historical African American Cemeteries and Graves Act, which is meant to address the injustice. Still, less than $1,000 has been spent so far, and while a century of investment has kept Confederate cemeteries in rather pristine condition, many grave sites of the formerly enslaved and their descendants are overgrown and in ruins.
Significantly, Virginia disburses public funding for Confederate graves directly to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which distributes it to, among others, local chapters of the UDC and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Since 2009, Virginia taxpayers have sent more than $800,000 to the UDC.
The UDC, a women’s Confederate heritage group with thousands of members in 18 states and the District of Columbia, is arguably the leading advocate for Confederate memorials, and it has a history of racist propagandizing. One of the organization’s most influential figures was Mildred Lewis Rutherford, of Athens, Georgia, a well-known speaker and writer at the turn of the 20th century and the UDC’s historian general from 1911 to 1916.
Rutherford was so devoted to restoring the racial hierarchies of the past that she traveled the country in full plantation regalia spreading the “true history,” she called it, which cast slave owners and Klansmen as heroes. She pressured public schools and libraries across the South to accept materials that advanced Lost Cause mythology, including pro-Klan literature that referred to black people as “ignorant and brutal.” At the center of her crusade was the belief that slaves had been “the happiest set of people on the face of the globe,” “well-fed, well-clothed, and well-housed.” She excoriated the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency charged with protecting the rights of African-Americans, and argued that emancipation had unleashed such violence by African-Americans that “the Ku Klux Klan was necessary to protect the white woman.”
- “Once it was framed, it became the course for everything. It was the accepted narrative.”
UDC officials did not respond to our interview requests. Previously, though, the organization has disavowed any links to hate groups, and in 2017 the president-general, Patricia Bryson, released a statement saying the UDC “totally denounces any individual or group that promotes racial divisiveness or white supremacy.”
Confederate cemeteries in Virginia that receive taxpayer funds handled by the UDC are nonetheless used as gathering places for groups with extreme views. One afternoon last May, we attended the Confederate Memorial Day ceremony in the Confederate section of the vast Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond. We were greeted by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Virginia Flaggers, a group that says its mission is to “stand AGAINST those who would desecrate our Confederate Monuments and memorials, and FOR our Confederate Veterans.”
An honor guard of re-enactors presented an array of Confederate standards. Participants stood at attention for an invocation read by a chaplain in period dress. They put their hands on their hearts, in salute to the Confederate flag. Susan Hathaway, a member of the Virginia Flaggers, led the crowd of several dozen in a song that was once the official paean to the Commonwealth:
Carry me back to old Virginny,
There’s where the cotton and the corn and taters grow,
There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime,
There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.
Very little has been done to address the legacy of slavery and its meaning in contemporary life.”
That scathing assessment of the nation’s unwillingness to face the truth was issued recently by the Equal Justice Initiative, the Montgomery-based legal advocacy group that in April 2018 opened the first national memorial to victims of lynching.
A few Confederate historical sites, though, are showing signs of change. In Richmond, the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy have joined forces to become the American Civil War Museum, now led by an African-American CEO, Christy Coleman. The new entity, she said, seeks to tell the story of the Civil War from multiple perspectives—the Union and the Confederacy, free and enslaved African-Americans—and to take on the distortions and omissions of Confederate ideology.
“For a very, very long time” the Lost Cause has dominated public histories of the Civil War, Coleman told us in an interview. “Once it was framed, it became the course for everything. It was the accepted narrative.” In a stark comparison, she noted that statues of Hitler and Goebbels aren’t scattered throughout Germany, and that while Nazi concentration camps have been made into museums, “they don’t pretend that they were less horrible than they actually were. And yet we do that to America’s concentration camps. We call them plantations, and we talk about how grand everything was, and we talk about the pretty dresses that women wore, and we talk about the wealth, and we refer to the enslaved population as servants as if this is some benign institution.”
Stratford Hall, the Virginia plantation where Robert E. Lee was born, also has new leadership. Kelley Deetz, a historian and archaeologist who co-edited a paper titled “Historic Black Lives Matter: Archaeology as Activism in the 21st Century,” was hired in June as the site’s first director of programming and education. Stratford Hall, where 31 people were enslaved as of 1860, is revising how it presents slavery. The recent shocking violence in Charlottesville, Deetz said, was speeding up “the slow pace of dealing with these kinds of sensitive subjects.” She said, “I guarantee you that in a year or less, you go on a tour here and you’re going to hear about enslavement.”
In 1999, Congress took the extraordinary step of advising the National Park Service to re-evaluate its Civil War sites and do a better job of explaining “the unique role that slavery played in the cause of the conflict.” But vestiges of the Lost Cause still haunt park property. In rural Northern Virginia, in the middle of a vast lawn, stands a small white clapboard house with a long white chimney—the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, part of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. The Confederate general died in the house in May 1863. “The tendency for the park historically has been to invite people to mourn Jackson’s death,” John Hennessy, the park’s chief historian, told us. He believes that the site should be more than a shrine, however. Visitors, Hennessey said, should learn that Jackson “led an army in a rebellion in the service of a nation that intended to keep people in bondage forever.” He went on, “The greatest enemy to good public history is omission. We are experiencing as a society now the collateral damage that forgetting can inflict.”
Local public school students listen to a presentation by a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Confederate memorial organization, about Confederate flags during Fall Muster 2018 at Beauvoir.Image: Brian Palmer/The Investigative Fund
A park ranger sitting in the gift shop rose to offer us a practiced talk that focused reverently on Jackson’s final days—the bed he slept on, the clock that still keeps time. The ranger said a “servant,” Jim Lewis, had stayed with Jackson in the small house as he lay dying. A plaque noted the room where Jackson’s white staff slept. But there was no sign in the room across the hall where Lewis stayed. Hennessy had recently removed it because it failed to acknowledge that Lewis was enslaved. Hennessy is working on a replacement. Slavery, for the moment, was present only in the silences.
During the Fall Muster at Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis home, we met Stephanie Brazzle, a 39-year-old African-American Mississippian who had accompanied her daughter, a fourth grader, on a field trip. It was Brazzle’s first visit. “I always thought it was a place that wasn’t for us,” she said. Brazzle had considered keeping her daughter home, but decided against it. “I really do try to keep an open mind. I wanted to be able to talk to her about it.”
Brazzle walked the Beauvoir grounds all morning. She stood behind her daughter’s school group as they listened to re-enactors describe life in the Confederacy. She waited for some mention of the enslaved, or of African-Americans after emancipation. “It was like we were not even there,” she said, as if slavery “never happened.”
“I was shocked at what they were saying, and what wasn’t there,” she said. It’s not that Brazzle, who teaches psychology, can’t handle historic sites related to slavery. She can, and she wants her daughter, now 10, to face that history, too. She has taken her daughter to former plantations where the experience of enslaved people is a part of the interpretation. “She has to know what these places are,” Brazzle said. “My grandmother, whose grandparents were slaves, she told stories. We black people acknowledge that this is our history. We acknowledge that this still affects us.”
The overarching question is whether American taxpayers should support Lost Cause mythology. For now, that invented history, told by Confederates and retold by sympathizers for generations, is etched into the experience at sites like Beauvoir. In the well-kept Confederate cemetery behind the library, beyond a winding brook, beneath the flagpole, a large gray headstone faces the road. It is engraved with lines that the English poet Philip Stanhope Worsley dedicated to Robert E. Lee:
“No nation rose so white and fair, none fell so pure of crime.”
Research assistance: Jasper Craven, Erin Hollaway Palmer, Richard Salame.
A special report by Smithsonian and the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations.