Dixie College’s Confederate Identity Crisis

Like many of you I’ve been following this story out of Utah at Dixie College.  It seems that the school is going through a bit of an identity crisis as its status shifts from college to university.  Already a statue of a Confederate soldier has been relocated off campus grounds, but it is the debate over a change of name that has caused the most controversy.  At first I didn’t think much of this story as I thought the school’s name and even the Confederate statue constituted a loose identification with a Confederate past.  Chalk it up to Ole Miss wannabes.

Boy was I wrong.

Until a few weeks ago, Brody Mikesell, like most of his fellow Dixie students, saw no problem with the name. But he began leafing through old yearbooks, called “The Confederate,” after another student pointed out troubling photos, some as late as the early 1990s. White students sing in black face, dress as Confederate soldiers, stage slave auctions and affectionately display the Confederate battle standard.

Some as late as the 1990s?  In the official school yearbook?

The clincher for Mikesell was a parade float called “Gone With the Plow.” In a photo dating from the late 1960s, a man with his skin painted black pushes a plow while a white student, formally dressed with a top hat, holds what appear to be reins or a whip.

Troubling enough, but consider the following from business professor and former chairman of the school’s board of trustees Shan Gubler:

A 1981 graduate, Gubler once carried the Confederate battle standard on campus, never considering that many regard the flag as a racist symbol. Now, thanks to the yearbook photos, “we have printed ourselves into a corner,” Gubler said, because they affirm the perception that Dixie name is a nod to Southern racism.

I hate to break it to you professor, but this is much more than just a “nod” to racism.  The fact that there is a history of these images in the official school yearbook suggests that a certain culture was well embedded as late as the early 1990s and that it was sanctioned or at least tolerated by the school’s administration and faculty.  This is an open and shut case.  If the school wants to be taken seriously as a university it at least should do what is necessary to bring its outward appearance more in line with what we hope goes on inside its classrooms.

Should Byron Thomas Join the Sons of Confederate Veterans?

Byron Thomas made a name for himself not too long ago by hanging a Confederate flag in his dorm window at the University of South Carolina – Beaufort.  Since then he has utilized YouTube to promote his own vision of a post-racial society.  Some of it is worth watching and some of it is not.  Today Byron discusses the discovery of an ancestor, who he believes fought as a soldier in the Confederate army.

I really want to join the Sons of Confederate Veterans because Benjamin Thomas a Black Confederate just might be my ancestor and I want to honor him. Benjamin Thomas got a state pension from the state of South Carolina, so he definitely isn’t no make believe character. I really want to join, because I’ve been to some SCV meetings and I love what they stand for. They DON”T SUPPORT/STAND FOR any form of racism. They are no where near a racist group.I just want to honor my past ancestor that fought for the south, that’s all. America I want to join, but I’m not sure my family will like it, so can yall help me out!!! Kill People with Kindness and May God Bless America.

You get the sense that Byron hasn’t done much research at all on his ancestor.  The direct answer to his question is obviously, yes, he should honor his ancestor.  The only question that remains – assuming the relation is substantiated – is whether Benjamin Thomas will be honored for who and what he was during the Civil War.

Continue reading “Should Byron Thomas Join the Sons of Confederate Veterans?”

‘The Best Servant By Far’

My latest column at The New York Times’s Disunion page is now available.  The essay briefly explores the relationship between John Christopher Winsmith and his body servant, Spencer.  The Winsmith letters are housed at the Museum of the Confederacy and offer an incredibly rich account of the war from a Confederate officer in the slaveholding class.  I still plan at some point to publish the letters and/or write a biography of Winsmith.

This is my third column for the Disunion page.  The first explored the challenges of using the Internet to do history and the second examined how I use battlefields to teach Civil War history.  Hope you enjoy it.

Young Robert E. Lee’s Cherubs

I don’t normally share reader mail, but this struck me as worth posting.  It’s been a few years since I last visited Stratford Hall and while I had a pleasant visit I too was struck by the emphasis on the cherubs.

Today I visited Stratford Hall.  The Great House obviously demonstrates the Lee family’s tremendous wealth during the eighteenth-century, and, while I was generally impressed with the interpretation of the plantation, I was a bit disappointed that there is not a more significant effort to interpret the slave life enforced and endured at Stratford Hall.

The docent pointed out the cherubs in the nursery’s fireplace that young four-year-old Robert E. Lee said good-bye to when he and his family moved to Alexandria.  Apparently, as the story goes, young Robert recognized the gravity of his family’s move and that he would not see his cherubs anymore.

What struck me with this story is how it conveys his sense of childhood innocence, which of course we should expect from a small child. Sheltered from the world around him, he had become attached to these cherubs set into the fireplace’s iron backing.  He regarded them as something real, something deserving of a farewell, all the while his family enslaved dozens of African Americans and denied them the opportunity of any similar sense of childhood bliss.  Did young Robert ever hear the crack of a whip or the crying horror of a slave being sold away from his family?  We’ll never know perhaps.  But if he did, his family and possibly even black servant protectors shielded him from the oppression outside and away from the Great House and its more immediate and stately environs.

I have young children who have neither experienced nor have come to understand the ugliness that the world perpetuates and endures. For this, I am thankful beyond expression.  I often wonder what they will grow up to become, to believe and to defend as worthwhile. Young Robert grew up to defend a slaveocracy- an institution that represented everything opposed and contradictory to those cherubs in the fireplace.  Acknowledging our history, even its ugliness, helps to strive to do better for the next generation.

More Entertainment For White Folks

On June 30 the Anderson County UDC dedicated a marker to Wade Childs, who accompanied his owner as a body servant in Orr’s Rifles.  Andy Hall recently took this one apart, not that it takes much time and effort to uncover these cases of so-called black Confederate soldiers.  This one is an absolute mess.  There is no question that Childs was a slave, but not surprisingly there is no indication of this on the marker.  The only thing missing from this little ceremony is H.K. Edgerton prancing about in one of his Dixie Outfitters t-shirts.

I am sure the African-American community in Anderson County appreciates their hard work of acknowledging one of the many horrors of slavery. Wait, where is the black community? [note strong New Jersey sarcasm. :-)]