Are the Virginia Flaggers A Threat to Confederate Heritage?

Long-time commenter and blogger, Patrick Young, offers some thoughts about what he sees as the likely effects of the Virginia Flaggers’ actions on the preservation of the Confederate Memorial Chapel on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Updated as of 4:39pm [see #2 and #3 below]

I like to visit the different Civil War blogs, but I often feel like a tourist. I live in a world where no one argues about the right to secede or whether slavery was not as bad as it is made out to be. I never meet people with views similar to those of the flaggers and white Protestants make up roughly 6% of the population of my region of 2.8 million people. When I read Civil War blogs, the frames of the discussions take some getting used to. As an ex-girlfriend observed last year “They are white people arguing with white people.” This discussion of the chapel and other discussions of the flaggers have that feel to me sometimes.

Rather than address any broader flag issues, I wanted to take a moment to break out of the frame on “the flag and the chapel” to address what I see as the more important issue of the preservation of the chapel. I want to discuss how this whole argument has lessened the chance that the chapel itself will be preserved in the long term. By long term I do not mean for the duration of the CW 150 or the term of our lives, but rather for the next 150 years or so. Rather than fully lay out my ideas, I’ll put out a few isolated points, and if anyone wants to discuss them, I’ll respond. The frame I will use is that of the survival of any non-profit and the preservation of an allegedly historic structure. For considerations of space, I won’t try to connect my points. Since these are fairly long points, I’ll break them up into smaller bits.

In them, I offer no opinion on when it is proper to fly the CBF, although I have definite thoughts on that topic.

1. The flagger attempt to bully the VMFA lessens the likelihood that the chapel will be preserved long term. You could have a dozen people from VMFA come on this blog and give assurances to the contrary, but they will all be dead or retired in the coming years. As new decision makers come to the fore, the chapel will seem less like a cultural resource and more like an albatross around the neck of what is essentially an art museum.

I went to the homepage of the VMFA. There were links to art exhibits, art classes, and kids programs. No mention of the Confederacy anywhere on the home page. While the current VMFA staff may value the chapel, it clearly does not bring in the visitors who are the bread and butter of the museum’s continued existence. If they thought it was a big draw, it would be prominent on the homepage. It isn’t.

The last thing that anyone interested in preserving the chapel should be doing is alienating the younger staffers and volunteers who one day be the decision makers at the VMFA though negative associations of the chapel with confrontation. My guess is that most of the younger folks at the museum are drawn to work there or support it because of the art. Associate the chapel with fake Confederate uniforms and neo-Confederate rhetoric and you will see them less and less likely to support the chapel’s preservation 30 years from now. They will see the chapel as an embarrassment and will associate it less with Confederate convalescents and more with folks like Tripp Lewis.

2. Nearly all not for profit institutions have felt the impact of the six year long recession. Most have fewer inflation-adjusted dollars available now than they had before the recession. While non-profits originally believed the recession was a momentary economic hiccup, most now are planning for a future of declining revenues. We see museums responding by reducing hours, closing peripheral outbuildings and neglecting upkeep.

Preserving a piece of land related to the Civil War, once it has been taken off the tax rolls and put in public trust, is fairly inexpensive. If maintenance funds drop, the site might suffer neglect, but once funding is restored, a clean-up can bring it back to its historical condition. A structure like the Memorial Chapel is more precarious. It must be protected from vandals and the elements. Once it is lost, it is lost forever. As Elizabeth O’Leary, a former associate curator of the museum, pointed out on this site, the VMFA recently spent 250,000 dollars on a new roof for a chapel for which no admission is charged.

So-called “house museums”, small structures in which the building itself is the primary attraction, are among the most financially precarious museums right now. Visitation is down at these sites, as is the willingness of communities to support them. In addition, their status as “historic sites” ensures that upkeep will be significantly more expensive than that for other museum buildings. The chapel is functionally a “house museum.”

I know of several historic houses in my own area that have been allowed to rot because funding could not be secured for “historically appropriate” restoration. Rather than allow volunteers with cans of latex paint to slather the houses, the buildings may have deteriorated beyond rescue. The fact that it cost a quarter of a million dollars to put a new roof on indicates the high cost of keeping the chapel from deteriorating. The Virginia Flaggers are having a hard time coming up with the cash to put up a non-historically correct giant flag pole, so they are not going to be the people to maintain the chapel for the next 150 years. In the next post, I’ll look at who is going to fund, or not fund, the upkeep long after the last flagger is dead.

3. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts spends $19.6 million per year according to its most recent financial statement available online. Of that, $9.6 million came from the State of Virginia or the Federal government. http://www.vmfa.state.va.us/Visit/About_VMFA/Reports_+_State_Documents.aspx

In other words, the museum, which engages in robust fundraising efforts, relies on taxpayers for a large share of its funding. Let’s look at who Virginia taxpayers are.

At the time of the Civil War Centennial, 79% of Virginians were white. Twenty years ago, 76% of Virginians were non-Hispanic Whites. Now that percentage has fallen to 64%. Nearly 20% are African Americans. Latinos make up more than 8% of the population and that proportion nearly doubled in just the last ten years. 6% are Asian. Half of the babies born in Virginia are non-white and/or Latino.

The flaggers can get out of the streets and into the bedroom, or they can wake up to the emerging political/demographic reality.

Tying the chapel’s image to a flag that is extremely controversial for Virginia’s emerging minority-majority could make financial support from the government a flashpoint for the future. Instead of merely evaluating the site for its artistic or historical value, it will suffer as a symbol of an atavistic and revanchist modern fringe movement.

An excellent case can be made for preservation of the chapel, but it cannot be made on the basis of “honoring our ancestors and what they stood for.”

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

52 comments… add one

  • Barb Gannon Sep 7, 2013

    Amen, teaching Civil War and talking to my students they have NO time for the Lost Cause. If you tie the chapel to the Confederacy and its modern defenders who use if for a multitude of modern agendas not related to honoring the dead or anyone else, they will not preserve it.

  • Billy Bearden Sep 7, 2013

    Pat, I see you use Elizabeth O’Leary’s “Flaggers bullying the VMFA” line. Wanting the 2 flags restored to the place they flew for 17 years (and where the Confederate ANV Battle flag flew for 75+ years) isonly ‘bullying’ in the eyes of the current VMFA administration because they for whatever reason hold that art, not Confederate history and heritage, is what motivates them and are thus forced almost daily to defend the actions of flag removal by less than honorable means by people from out of state who were hired there as art people.

    If the VMFA had been allowed to follow thru on their plans a few years ago, the VMFA did in fact attempt to tear down the Chapel, to either expand the then parking lot or put up more artwork. It took action by others to stop the brutal attack on the Chapel by the VMFA. The VMFA did however tear down century old oak trees and other historical buildings at the same time they demanded the flags be removed. The unreported facts are that the old trees did not allow the flags to be seen from Director Nyerges office or the VMFA Café, but when the trees went, the flags became ‘visible’

    The VMFA claims to be so concerned about the Chapel, yet they themselves tore off a flag holder that predated the white paint, as the ensuing hole that was left showed the original untreated wood.

    The poor elderly SCV gentlemen who provide the tours in the Chapel bake inside in the summer and freeze during the winter because the VMFA refuses to provide simple climate controls like AC/heat. Portable units are forbidden.

    The VMFA hires out the Chapel for weddings like a place in Las Vegas. It cheapens the sacred memory of the men who made the place what it is – the Confederate War Memorial Chapel. The SCV tour guides must stand down and allow the weddings to take place.

    The ideal situation would be to turn the Chapel over to the SCV and be done with future VMFA entanglements. Nyerges, Bonadies, O’Leary, etc… are not interested in anything Confederate, although but for the Confederate Veterans and the Robert E Lee Camp #1 grounds, there would be no VMFA.

    The Chapel, left to the devices of the VMFA is always under threat of demolition. Praise God they were stopped in years past, shame on them for tearing down old buildings and historic trees. As long as folks like the Flaggers and the SCV are around, the Chapel has many friends and defenders.

    All Nyerges had to do in October 2011 was to quietly replace the flags, and the Flaggers would have went away. Now most of the civilized world is aware of the Confederate War Memorial Chapel where it had not been previously, so a larger microscope has thankfully been placed on that entire situation.

    • Rob Baker Sep 7, 2013

      Way to stay on the attack and demean the lease holders Billy. Bully indeed.

    • Patrick Young Sep 7, 2013

      Billy wrote: “The VMFA hires out the Chapel for weddings like a place in Las Vegas.” Maybe things are different in Virginia, but on Long Island chapels are often the scenes of weddings. My guess is that the ghosts of the Confederacy would be happy to see young people in love getting married. I’m not that far off from ghosthood myself, and I know I always love to see a nice couple get married. Never thought of my church as being defiled by weddings.

      • Woodrowfan Sep 8, 2013

        “Like a place in Las Vegas”? So the chapel is hiring Elvis impersonators to do weddings?

        • Patrick Young Sep 8, 2013

          I was thinking the same thing. Since weddings take place in every part of the U.S., why even say “Like a place in Vegas”?

  • Elizabeth O'Leary Sep 7, 2013

    Please look again on the VMFA website: under “About” tab you’ll find History of the Grounds: http://www.vmfa.state.va.us/Visit/About_VMFA/History_of_the_Grounds.aspx
    You might also be interested in a posting on the VMFA blog about the museum-sponsored outdoor exhibition about the R.E. Lee Camp, No. 1, Confederate Soldiers’ Home: http://virginiamuseum.blogspot.com/2011/10/vmfas-past-is-now-present.html
    Yes, bullying tactics rarely bring productive results. But please don’t confuse the fact that VMFA has decided to no longer support its lessee’s anachronistic display of the Confederate battle flag on the Chapel portico that it isn’t interested in the Soldiers’ Home history or dedicated to preserving this historical structure. The Chapel has Virginia Historic Landmark status and is on the National Register of Historic Places. And VMFA has just nominated Robinson House, the other Soldiers’ Home-era structure under its aegis, to have these same important designations and is already planning an exhibit on the history to open after the building undergoes extensive renovation.
    There are plenty of the diverse 400+ VMFA staffers who are interested in this history as well as art. And despite repeated flagger assertions that museum employees and board members are ignorant Yankees (other descriptors: liars, anti-veteran, anti-southern, perverts [art, you know...], etc. etc.), a large percentage are native to Virginia and other southern states. Several are proud U.S. veterans; many are descended from Confederate soldiers and sailors, but understand there is more to southern history than those four years and have no interest in fetishizing the battle flag.
    The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts–its comprehensive international collections as well as its historic buildings and grounds–is one of the jewels in the crown of the Commonwealth and an extraordinary asset. (For outside opinions, browse Yelp: http://www.yelp.com/biz/virginia-museum-of-fine-arts-richmond.) Regardless, I’m fairly sure that the single-goal flaggers have little interest in either VMFA or its staff other than to denigrate them.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 7, 2013

      Once again, thanks for the comment, Elizabeth.

  • Rob Baker Sep 7, 2013

    Pat, in your opinion, do you think a compromise is possible in this situation? And if so, what do you suggest that compromise be?

    • Patrick Young Sep 7, 2013

      By whom with whom?

      • Rob Baker Sep 7, 2013

        Sorry Pat. The VMFA and the Flaggers.

        • Patrick Young Sep 7, 2013

          Rob, that wouldn’t be a compromise solution, that would only open up a new battlefront for the VMFA.

          Real compromise comes when parties respect and trust each other. In this case, the parties include the state’s African American community. Were I to advise the flaggers, I would suggest a multi-year engagement with the African American community to understand the joint history of Virginia’s white antebellum community and the African American held to servitude. If both parties came ogether with a compromise solution of joint, I’m sure the public would at last entertain it.

          The main challenge for the flaggers would be adopting a posture in which African Americans would not worry that a compromise would be viewed as a triumph by those hoping to restore the social system to its pre-Obama state. I would also like to know what the flaggers would be willing to give up other than their self-marginalizing protesting, since that is typically part of a compromise as well.

  • Betty Giragosian Sep 7, 2013

    The Confederate Chapel is on the Virginia Historic Landmarks register, so it will be forever preserved.

    • Rob Baker Sep 7, 2013

      It will be “preserved” in that it won’t be torn down. There are numerous “preserved” buildings across the nation that are dilapidated. “Preserved” and “Restored” are two very different things.

      • Betty Giragosian Sep 7, 2013

        I believe that the chapel being on the Virginia and National Historic Landmarks Register does preserve the chapel. No, it is never in danger of being torn down, but neither will it reach the point that it is dilapidated. Virginia would not allow it. I am a Virginian

        • Rob Baker Sep 7, 2013

          Bold statement given the number of places in Virginia that already are.

          • Woodrowfan Sep 8, 2013

            My wife and I an volunteers with a local history society and manage a couple of historic buildings. They are on the Va and National registers, and although it’s a challenge to keep them well-maintained, we manage. But we get no help from the state of Virginia to do so.

    • Patrick Young Sep 7, 2013

      Betty, in Virginia being listed does not carry with it any guarantee of an appropriation for preservation as you can see here:
      http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/register_faq.htm

  • Betty Giragosian Sep 7, 2013

    Furthermore, the property belongs to the Commonwealth of Virginia, not to the SCV or the VMFA.

  • Betty Giragosian Sep 7, 2013

    Until 17 years ago, when the Lee Jackson camp ,SCV acquired the lease on the chapel, no CBF had ever been hung on the chapel porch.

  • Betty Giragosian Sep 7, 2013

    Ms. O’Leary, i am glad the VMFA is seeking to gain this status for the chapel on both the Virginia and National Register of Historic Landmarks. I had been told that the VMFA was standing in the way of this being done, and that they would not even consider it. Thank you.

    • Elizabeth O'Leary Sep 7, 2013

      Ms. Giragosian:

      You’re referring to Robinson House, yes? Otherwise, as you note earlier, the Chapel is on the Va. Landmarks and National Register–has been since 1972. Flaggers enjoy scaring the cohort with the notion that the museum “tried to tear down” the Chapel based on an obscure 1950s document. The Commonwealth did not place the Chapel under VMFA jurisdiction until 1993. Now–as at the time of the transfer–there is no such intention. But if demolition had been a goal, they could have simply let the leaks do their work, the old roof cave in, or let a diseased tree fall on it.

      Back to Robinson House. Yes, I’ve seen that misconception repeated often, as well. It is based on an item in a Va. Department of Historic Resources annual report a couple of years back that VMFA declined their suggestion that it put forth a nomination. That “no” meant not that year as the museum was managing the opening of the new wing and getting exhibitions and permanent galleries up. In fact, putting forward a nomination has been an ongoing discussion point between the two state agencies for many years–and this summer’s submittal is the result of that happy collaboration.

      Thanks so much for asking so that could be cleared up.

      • Betty Giragosian Sep 7, 2013

        Thank you, Ms. O’Leary, for the good information you have given this evening. I wonder if these folks have ever considered that perhaps the old veterans would be pleased to see how their property looks today, and even more so that the VMFA is there to educate the children of Virginia in so many ways. iI is indeed a jewel of the Commonwealth The grounds are more beautiful than they have even been, and any loss of precious old trees was accidental, I can remember that dreary parking lot. I find the new parking deck a great convenience.

  • Michael Rodgers Sep 7, 2013

    The SCV requires flying flags anachronistically and against protocol because they did it that way when they were in charge.

    • Billy Bearden Sep 8, 2013

      Michael,
      The Confederate Battle Flag has flown on the grounds and on the Chapel for 74 years. The Veterans started it, and the Grounds and Chapel are their everlasting testament and legacy.

      If either:

      The Battleflags were once again restored to the Chapel Portico as they were for 17 years and never alter future lease stipulations hindering the display of flags, or:
      A single dedicated flagpole (preferably in the tri-leg style the Veterans used) to fly only a ANV flag near the Chapel as it was from 1884 – 1941 never to be henceforth removed or altered except to replace worn, and to conform with current applicable Virginia Law § 15.2-1812. Memorials for war veterans.

      The Flaggers would leave the Grove and Boulevard sidewalks.

      This was the October 31st 2011 offer made to the VMFA, and they refused.

      • Michael Rodgers Sep 8, 2013

        Good, we agree:
        1) The flags you are talking about are not artifacts from the Civil War.
        2) Your organization flew them the way you wanted to when your organization was in charge.
        3) Someone else is in charge now.
        4) Your organization demands that the VMFA flies the flag forevermore from a pole outside of the Chapel
        Have fun marching the sidewalks.
        Bye.

        • R. Alex Raines Sep 13, 2013

          I am a little late to this show, but I think Mr. Rodgers is spot on.

  • Betty Giragosian Sep 7, 2013

    Ms. O’Leary, May I correct my last statement–I meant to say Robinson House instead of the Chapel. Also, I had no idea that the VMFA had spent a large sum of money to replace the roof on the chapel. I have read the really nasty remarks about the VMFA–I have learned two truths this evening that I did not know. As for the weddings at the chapel, they are beautifully done. I do not know who gives permission, the Camp or the VMFA. I believe the camp used to permit weddings at the chapel for descendants of Confederate veterans

    • Elizabeth O'Leary Sep 7, 2013

      The Confederate Memorial Chapel is indeed a beautiful site for a wedding. And you’re correct, weddings are arranged through Lee-Jackson Camp, No. 1, SCV. (VMFA leases other spaces on the museum campus for events.) Wedding rental fees go to the Camp; this is a good fund raiser as the SCV leases the Chapel for $1 a year.

      • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2013

        Once again and with all due respect, Billy Bearden looks like a complete jackass. :-)

        • Elizabeth O'Leary Sep 8, 2013

          Wasn’t eliciting targeted name calling. Was only answering Ms. Giragosian’s question. And yes, Patrick Young is right: weddings bring new visitors and always new appreciation to the site–not to mention needed funds to support the SCV’s ongoing tours there. I believe Mr. Bearden lives in Georgia and likely didn’t know this.

          • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2013

            I know. I reserve the right to engage in targeted name calling when necessary. Billy has a record of sharing inaccurate and highly selective versions of events. :-)

          • Patrick Young Sep 8, 2013

            So it not only helps bring visitors to the chapel, it supports historic interpretation there. Sounds Win-Win to me.

      • Patrick Young Sep 8, 2013

        I would also imagine that the weddings are a wonderful way to bring in people who may never have known the site existed. Since half the people at a wedding are typically in their 20s and early 30s, these are likely to engage a demographic that might be missing at other times of the week. I would also imagine that a couple that chose the chapel might have a heightened interest in history.

        • Betty Giragosian Sep 8, 2013

          Patrick i have seen pictures of the chapel decorated in perfect taste and of the period, for weddings. They might be on the web site.

          • Patrick Young Sep 8, 2013

            I have seen some pics like that as well. I would imagine that couples that want that historic association would be respectful of the chapel.

      • Michael Rodgers Sep 8, 2013

        Obviously, the VMFA should raise the lease rate. At the very least it should be doubled.

  • Corey Meyer Sep 7, 2013

    Well, after an explanation like that from Mrs. O’Leary the only thing left for the flaggers to say is…

    “Nah-uh!”… I can hear it now.

  • Patrick Young Sep 12, 2013

    I just wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who took the time to make intelligent comments on my guest post. This post actually began as a comment itself. Thanks to Kevin for pulling it out as full blog. Also thanks for the patience as I completed it during a Cosmos Soccer game at Hofstra Stadium last Saturday.

  • R. Alex Raines Sep 13, 2013

    Kevin,

    As a frequent reader and an occasional poster, I would like to take the time to thank you for turning a post by Mr. Young into a few blog entries. I think that was an inspired decision.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 14, 2013

      You are very welcome, Alex.

  • Philip Smith Jan 5, 2014

    The Commonwealth owns the chapel. The VMFA merely manages the chapel. If the chapel deteriorates it will be because the Commonwealth allows it to deteriorate. The VMFA may decide, within one or two generations, that it requires new expansion and decide to move to a larger facility near the Short Pump mall in Henrico County. Or the VFMA may decide, within two or three generations to expand, and then bulldoze the chapel. The population of the Commonwealth may, within two or three generation, change to thirty percent non-hispanic white. Or, within two or three generations, current demographic trends may be reversed and a large group of people with ancestral roots in the Commonwealth may decide to migrate back to their beloved home state (I am case in point). Or the the population of the Commonwealth may change to sixty percent non-hispanic white and hostility toward anything Southern by any of the racial groups of the Commonwealth may, through responsible education, be significantly reduced. My point: Anything can happen within two or three generations. If the chapel deteriorates or is demolished it will not because of a few hardy Saturday afternoon demonstrators. If the chapel deteriorates or is demolished, it will be because future generations of Virginians have either become so blase or hostile toward the heroics of their own ancestors that they allow the chapel to deteriorate or be demolished.

    • Patrick Young Jan 6, 2014

      Philip wrote:
      “If the chapel deteriorates or is demolished, it will be because future generations of Virginians have either become so blase or hostile toward the heroics of their own ancestors that they allow the chapel to deteriorate or be demolished.”
      …or because decision makers come to identify the chapel with the discredited revanchism of the Flaggers.

  • Philip Smith Jan 7, 2014

    If the flaggers decide, after the forthcoming Saturday, to cease all demonstration at the chapel, the chapel could still be allowed to deteriorate. The effort to denigrate Southern heritage, especially during the last five decades, has been a resounding success. Here in central Virginia, hostility toward the South and its heritage, while not as blatant and vulgar as in other parts of the country, is quite strong. Here the hostility is muted, codified, subtle. As long as the facts concerning Southern heritage continue to be skewed in irresponsible fashion, hostility toward the South and its heritage will escalate. Hiding the military banner of an extinct army will not abate hostility.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 8, 2014

      The chapel is an important site of Confederate history with or without the Flaggers. Nothing has changed except the fact that a Confederate flag does not fly outside.

      • Michael Rodgers Jan 8, 2014

        Yes. I’ll add an amplification and a clarification.
        Amplification: As an important site of Confederate history, it is an important site of American history, because American history includes everything American from pre-colonial times to now.
        Clarification: The Confederate flag is not being hidden, and there is an outside display. Outside is not the issue. Flying is not the issue. The Confederate flag itself is not the issue. The issue is that people do not wish to fly the Confederate flag from places where visitors might expect to see the Stars and Stripes or the state flag. The basic rule is: Only governing flags get governing placements.

        • Philip Smith Jan 8, 2014

          Mr. Michael Rogers: A large English “Union Jack” is mounted on the James River side of the reconstructed fort on Jamestown Island. I discovered this, by accident, during an October tour of the place. Beauty, or significance, is in the eye of the beholder.

    • Andy Hall Jan 8, 2014

      “The chapel could still be allowed to deteriorate.”

      Anything “could” happen, but the VMFA’s track record in caring for with the two remaining Confederate home properties it came to control has been strong. They put a $200K roof on the chapel, and upwards of $300K into securing and stabilizing the exterior of Robinson House. This is above and beyond ongoing, day-to-day maintenance costs, and does not include the new renovation of Robinson House. I have not seen a substantive complaint that the VMFA has failed to maintain the chapel. The Flaggers’ demands to “restore the honor” at the chapel are to reinstate a practice that began in 1993, decades after the last former Confederate soldier went to his reward.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 8, 2014

        I may be wrong, but I haven’t heard much concern by the Flaggers over the physical structure itself.

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