A Relic of the Past

Lee Monument, Richmond, Virginia

Last night I received an email asking why I continue to post about the activities and antics of the Virginia Flaggers [see here and here].  It should be obvious given the content of this blog, but let me once again state the obvious.  The Flaggers and their cause provide a clear window into the changing cultural and historical landscape of Richmond and much of the rest of the South.  I should point out that I don’t really have a problem with planting the Confederate flag in front of Pelham Chapel, but apparently the VMFA does and it is their private property.  Andy Hall was kind enough to forward the official UDC response to Susan Hathaway and the Flaggers following their recent incident:

On December 26, 2011, I responded to Ms. Hathaway advising that Pelham Chapel is not a UDC memorial and that our involvement in this issue could be construed as a ‘political activity’ that would possibly put our 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status at risk. I further advised that our Bylaws prevent our involvement in ‘political activity’ and for that reason; the UDC was unable to allow the use of the flag poles located on the front of our UDC Memorial Building. I reminded her that the First National Flag flies daily in front of the UDC Memorial Building in perpetual honor of our Confederate ancestors.

On Wednesday afternoon, March 7, 2012, Ms. Hathaway came to our building and asked to speak with me. Mrs. Lucy Steele, Chairman of the Memorial Building Board of Trustees (who was in the building on other business) and I met with Ms. Hathaway. The request was that they be allowed to ‘gather’ on the front of our property. She was advised that we would not allow that.

The request was then made to allow them to ‘gather’ on the back corner of our property. Mrs. Steele pointed out that the property at the back corner belonged to VMFA but that we did not have a problem with it but she would have to seek approval from VMFA.

Ms. Hathaway then asked if the “No Trespassing” signs that had been posted recently were because of them and if they gathered on our property would the police be called. She was told that, as with any trespasser, we would call the police.

We explained to Ms. Hathaway that there have been instances of people sleeping under the bushes around the building. Recently during a work day, a man was seen crouching between the bushes and the building with binoculars which raised questions as to his intentions. The police were called at that time. “No Trespassing” signs were placed on our property in an effort to protect not only our building but our employees as they come and go, often times during early morning and evening hours.

On Saturday, March 10, 2012, during our Annual Spring Board Meeting, the VA Flaggers gathered on the sidewalk in front of the UDC Memorial Building. A short time later, they were observed leaning and perched on the cannons ignoring signs stating do not climb on the cannons. They then moved from the cannons to the steps leading to our building for a group photo. At this point, Mrs. Steele went out to ask them to move from the steps to the sidewalk – some moved immediately. Others remained on the steps. During this time, the Richmond City Police were called.

The UDC could have found a way to accommodate the Flaggers if they had wanted to do so.  It’s safe to say that their “15 Minutes” expired some time ago.  Their fundamental problem is the same problem that the rest of the heritage community faces and that is a continued embrace of the Confederate flag as the beginning and end of Confederate memory.  It reflects a complete lack of creativity as to how to forge meaningful ties to the past for those people who may be disposed to follow.  Although the community believes that their ability to commemorate the past has been threatened, the irony is that there is no better time in the Richmond area to explore the rich history of the Confederacy and the Civil War era.  There is some evidence that tourists are visiting the area for precisely this reason, but apart from a few poorly maintained websites  (some of which are attached to some pretty shady people) and a YouTube page no one is coming to their defense or providing additional support. It is difficult to see the Virginia Flaggers as little more than a relic of the past.

UDC Snubs Virginia Flaggers

Update: Margaret Blough reminded me that the UDC has always maintained a strict code for displaying the Confederate flag.  Their concern has always been that liberal use would disconnect it from the Civil War – a lesson the Flaggers and others should take to heart.

Looks like the Virginia Flaggers suffered a setback this week during their ongoing boycott of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for removing Confederate flags from in front of the Pelham Chapel.  The trouble started after the group attempted to take a photograph in front of the national headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Apparently, a representative of the UDC explained to the Flaggers that their presence threatened their status as a tax exempt organization. Someone is going to have to explain that one to me. Interestingly, the UDC does not use the battle flag on their official insignia.

Has the UDC always used the First National as part of their logo or is this a more recent change?  Somehow I doubt that their concern with the Flaggers has solely to do with taxes.

Fellow Southerners!

Battle of Spotsylvania

It should come as no surprise that a National Air and Space Museum exhibit centered around the Enola Gay and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb would cause controversy in the mid-1990s.  Many of the veterans of WWII were still alive and the issue itself tugged at how Americans saw themselves as moral leaders on the world stage.  Ignoring some of the legitimate concerns with how the event was interpreted by the NASM, it is clear that Americans were simply too close to the event in question to allow for the kind of historical objectivity that the historians, curators, and other professionals hoped to bring to the exhibit. The debate that took place in the halls of the Senate, House of Representatives as well as countless newspapers and magazines provides the perfect case study for what happens when a historical interpretation comes up against a narrative that is rooted in a personal connection to the past that is still very much part of the event itself.  We can see this at work in how the events of 9-11 are commemorated as well.

It is interesting that after 150 years many Americans are committed to framing some of the central questions about the Civil War in personal terms.  Typically this connection is framed as a defense of an ancestor who fought on one side or another; implied is a belief in some sort of privileged connection to historical truth.  I’ve argued in a number of places that our collective understanding has undergone profound shifts in recent years and that we are beginning to take on a more detached stance in regard to the events of the 1860s, but the cries of “heritage violations” can still be heard.  While I have some respect for those who take themselves to be deeply rooted in a personal past, the rhetoric is itself sounding more and more anachronistic.

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The End of Confederate Heritage

The reason why the members of the first generation of Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy emphasized such a strict code governing the display of the Confederate flag was that they understood the risks of it being appropriated in a way that threatened to disconnect it from its Civil War roots.  By the 1950s and 60s that battle had clearly been lost through its use as a symbol of Massive Resistance and later through its appearance on everything from cigarette lighters to bikini bottoms.  This story of a black University of South Carolina Beaufort student who chose to display a Confederate flag in his dorm window is but the latest example of this gradual decline.

So here we have a flag that was carried by the military arm of a government pledged to defend slavery and white supremacy and that remained a symbol of racism and hatred for this student’s parents has now become little more than a colorful rag in the hands of a young black man.  What does the flag mean to him?

“When I look at this flag, I don’t see racism. I see respect, Southern pride,” he said. “This flag was seen as a communication symbol” during the Civil War.

“I’ve been getting a lot of support from people. My generation is interested in freedom of speech,” Thomas said.

“I think he’s got a really good point. It’s just a flag, and in and of itself, it doesn’t have any racial meaning. It only has as much meaning as you put into it,” said Reed.

That’s about it.  The flag was a “communication symbol”… you know, guys waved them back and forth to send signals.  The student in question doesn’t seem to have any interest in the Confederate war nor does his display of the flag seem to have much to do with the Civil War era at all.  So much for Confederate/Southern heritage.  That hasn’t prevented the Confederate heritage community from embracing him as their latest hero.  In the past few weeks the most popular defenders of Confederate heritage include a middle school student from New Jersey and now this guy.  Hilarious!

Are License Plates Confederately Correct?

Harper's Weekly, September 17, 1864

It should come as no surprise that the Sons of Confederate Veterans attributes yesterday’s unanimous decision by the Texas DMV as another attack on Confederate symbols and “Southern Heritage” more generally.  It may surprise you to learn, however, that the leadership of the SCV at the turn of the twentieth century likely would have viewed yesterday’s decision as a victory.

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