Today the city council in Lexington, Virginia will vote on a controversial ordinance that would ban display of Confederate flags on Main Street. As many of you know, Lexington is the burial place of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee and the home of the Virginia Military Institute. The city is steeped in Confederate history. The local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is staging a parade to encourage the city to strike down the ordinance. To help out they are bringing in some heavy guns, including everyone’s favorite black Confederate, H.K. Edgerton. Edgerton started out early this morning outside of Lexington on a roughly ten mile hike in uniform and waving his Confederate flag. I’m sure he created quite a spectacle and I have no doubt that his address in front of the city council later tonight will cause quite a stir.
I’ve written quite a bit about Edgerton on this blog not because he adds anything important to our understanding of history, but because of where he fits into that complex web called Civil War memory. I see Edgerton in a long line of mythic black figures that reinforce the fantasy of harmonious race relations. He reflects the extent to which a very small, but vocal group of white Americans continue to feel a need to defend a narrative of faithful and loyal slaves during the Civil War. Edgerton’s antics are a form of entertainment, but make no mistake, it is entertainment for white people.
He comes from a long line of mythical black symbols that include “Mammy”, Aunt Jemimah, Uncle Ben, and countless other black minstrels during the twentieth century that perpetuated the myth of the loyal slave. [I highly recommend Micki McElya's book, Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America for a highly readable and thorough history.] The sad thing is that many of those black performers such as Hattie McDaniel took those jobs out of necessity. It’s not clear to me why Edgerton has chosen this path. What is clear is that Edgerton and his audience feed off of one another. Edgerton maintains an audience while providing his white listeners with the reassurance that their preferred view of the Civil War was pure and noble. His presence makes it easier to argue the point that the Confederate flag is not a divisive symbol.
I guess I could have waited for the council’s decision to post this, but I honestly don’t care. This is a matter for the people of Lexington to decide.