Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Not Your Daddy’s Dixie: Rainbow Confederates Lay Claim to History

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February 7, 2000

c.2000 Newhouse News Service

CHARLESTON, S.C. _ In a bare, dark apartment in a suburb of this city where the Civil War began and, it seems these days, never ended, Robert Harrison, a black man in Confederate gray, is primed for combat.
“I fight for history. I fight for historical truth. I fight to have the whole story told,” Harrison says, his dog, Bubba, resting by his side.
The truth that Harrison, a librarian at historically black South Carolina State University, is determined to tell is that of the men who 140 years ago might have looked just as he looks this day. The history for which he’ll mount the intellectual barricades is that of black Confederates.
He’s a sergeant in the 37th Texas Cavalry, a Civil War re-enactment unit with the stated mission to “educate others of the multiracial and multiethnic makeup of the Confederate Armed Forces through painstaking research and authentic re-enactment of the period 1863-65.” Not just black Confederates, but Jewish and Hispanic and American Indian and even the very occasional Asian Confederate. Theirs is not your daddy’s Dixie.
“Southerners are Southerners, we should not be divided by race,” proclaims Michael Kelley _ Irish, French and “a touch of Seminole” _ who, as Major Kelley, commands the 37th from Pascagoula, Miss.
The 37th is only the leading edge of a growing movement to colorize the Lost Cause, presenting the Confederacy as an enterprise for soldiers of every hue and not the simply racist undertaking so often portrayed. The mainline Sons of Confederate Veterans has a Black History Month page on its Web site, not to mention a Hispanic Heritage page and a guide to Cherokee Confederate Units. Increasingly, those who once wrapped themselves in the Rebel flag now also drape themselves in the rainbow robes of multiculturalism.
To Harrison and Kelley and the small, diverse “band of brothers” who make up the 37th, it’s all about “rediscovering” a neglected truth. To other brothers-in-gray, there’s an urgent tactical advantage to bleaching the War of Southern Independence of the stain of racism that now threatens to bring down its most cherished symbols, like the embattled Confederate flag over the state Capitol in Columbia.
But to critics, the movement is the opposite of truth. It’s a blizzard of factoids, half-truths and trivia intended to obscure the fundamental reality of a social order built on subjugation _ and a war waged to maintain it.
“I think it’s one of the grandest and most ludicrous versions of revisionist history I have ever seen,” says the Rev. Joseph Darby, pastor of Morris Brown AME Church and first vice president of the South Carolina NAACP,which nationally has called for a tourist boycott of the state until the flag over the Capitol comes down.
“There was a minuscule contribution by troops of color that is being woefully overplayed these days to create a new kind of Kumbaya Confederacy,” Darby says. “I think it’s ridiculous.”
Bernard Powers, historian at the College of Charleston, agrees. “It’s just the tail on the dog,” says Powers, who is black. “They never face up to the reality that if the people who fought under that flag had won, 4 million people would have remained in chains. They will not tell that.”
Nor is every son of the Confederacy comfortable with this newfound zeal for a more colorful past.
“There is a genuine division on this question, and I think people are entirely sincere on both sides,” says Jared Taylor, a Confederate descendant and editor of the Virginia-based white nationalist newsletter, American Renaissance. But Taylor believes Confederate heritage groups are sadly mistaken if they really think “the Confederacy can be made to gleam in today’s multicultural light.” The NAACP, Taylor argues, would never buy a politically correct Confederacy, and neither would he.
“The Confederacy,” Taylor says, “was one religion, one race, one people, by and large.”
Nonetheless, most on the neo-Confederate right seem OK with a measured makeover of the old image.
“I think those who care about Southern heritage want to make their message as up-to-date as possible,” says Clyde Wilson, a University of South Carolina historian who is associated with the neo-secessionist Southern League. “I think the greatest thing we can do is to bring Southern history together, to bring the black and white South, which is in so many ways the same, all together.”
The Southern League offers a glimpse of what a hyper-conservative multiculturalism might look like. Founding members James Ronald Kennedy and Walter Donald Kennedy, identical twins from Lousiana, co-authored the 1991 book, “The South Was Right!,” which has sold some 70,000 copies. Part of its mission was to shed some glory on what they called “black Confederate patriots,” and Walter Kennedy says, as a consequence, “I get attacked from the racist right for being an n-lover … a race traitor.”
And yet, while noting that slavery was wrong and had to go, in their book the Kennedys describe it as a system in which “many blacks were happy and free from want and violence.” They declare that “never has the family unit been stronger in the black community than it was in slavery days.’
Complementing the campaign to improve the image of the South is a parallel effort to undermine the historical judgment of the Union as the good guys on race and slavery.
The 37th Cavalry’s handsome Web site ( devotes a page to mocking Abraham Lincoln’s depiction as the “Great Emancipator.” Included is this bit of pith from Lincoln in 1859: “Negro equality. Fudge!!”
When it comes to whether North or South was better for the Jews, Robert Rosen, a Charleston attorney with a book coming out in the fall on Jewish Confederates, says it is no contest.
“The Old South was friendlier for the Jews than any other country, any time or place, since Medieval Spain,” says Rosen. (He does not belong to the 37th, though other Jews do.) Jewish immigrants who had fled the draft in their native lands freely joined the Confederate Army. Judah Benjamin, a Jew, was third in line to the presidency of the Confederacy, a higher station than any Jew has achieved in the United States.
“The left-wingers all say the reason the Jews were accepted _ because there’s always a bad reason for anything the South does _ was because any white person was acceptable in order to fight blacks,” Rosen says. “That’s ridiculous. The South could have easily persecuted both the blacks and the Jews.”
Lucas Graywolf, a member of the 37th and recently retired as the Catholic Apostolic Bishop of Texas, is descended from Choctaw Confederates. The U.S. flag meant conquest to them.
Another member of the 37th, John O’Donnell-Rosales, the Cuban-born descendant of a Cuban Confederate, has written a geneaology listing 3,600 of what he estimates to have been 10,000 Hispanic Confederates.
O’Donnell-Rosales, who teaches history at Bishop State Community College in Mobile, Ala., also researched the tiny handful of Asians who served in the war. Most notable were two Siamese cousins in the Virginia cavalry, the children, respectively, of Eng and Chang Bunker, the original Siamese twins made famous by P.T. Barnum. The elder Bunkers moved to Mt. Airy, N.C., where they married, produced 22 children, and owned both land and slaves. After the Union occupation of North Carolina, one twin was called to military service but dismissed when he arrived attached to his brother.
If the sons of slave-holding Siamese twins fighting for the Confederacy is exotic, it lacks the moral perplexity of blacks fighting for a cause that kept their people in bondage. Many blacks who marched with Confederates went as body servants to their masters. Others may have felt a loyalty to the folks and land they’d grown up with. And at the time, no one knew the cause was lost.
There is argument over the very numbers of black soldiers, not just about their possible reasons for fighting.
Kelley believes that as many 200,000 blacks _ some slaves, some free _ served the Confederacy as soldiers, cooks, musicians, teamsters and body servants. (More than 200,000 blacks soldiered for the Union with the United States Colored Troops.)
Edward Smith, director of American Studies at American University, thinks the number was more like 25,000 to 30,000. Smith is cited by the Sons of Confederate Veterans as its authority (they note parenthetically that he is “a black professor”).
John Ahladas, a curator at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., says the best evidence suggests a number of actual soldiers in the hundreds _ out of the more than a million Rebel soldiers _ and that most of them were mustered in during the war’s final days, when the Confederate Congress finally authorized black enlistment.
For those trying to paint a bright picture of black support for the Confederacy, history’s palette offers only shades of gray. But at least one black leader in South Carolina believes that Southerners of both races need to understand each other’s version of history, even if neither is wholly right.
State Sen. Robert Ford, who grew up in New Orleans, had good reason to hate the Confederate flag. In 1968, at 19, he was thrown into jail in Marks, Miss., while organizing for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Outside, Klansmen rallied, a sea of white sheets and Rebel flags.
But now Ford, who has protested the Confederate flag at the state Capitol since he first set foot in South Carolina, opposes the NAACP boycott as counterproductive, complaining that “99 percent of what blacks are saying at the demonstrations is 1,000 percent wrong.”
What happened? After being elected to the state Senate in 1992, Ford got to know the white senators he refers to as “the Confederates.”
“South Carolina white men are probably the toughest, meanest, most arrogant and stubborn white men on the planet,” Ford says. But, he adds, “all the staunch Confederates in the Senate, no matter how tough they might be, they’re going to wind up in tears talking about the 27,000 men who died.”
These days, Ford can answer all the typical Yankee questions about the Civil War with Confederate aplomb. Did you know, he asks, that “94 percent of the soldiers who died in the Civil War were men who did not own slaves?” Or that there were “437 black slave owners in Charleston at the time of the war,” some of whom fought to defend their homeland?
“It’s a totally different history,” he says. “They was taught one thing and we was taught something totally different. Now we got a little problem with ignorance on both sides.”
Ford remains committed to bringing down the Confederate flag, but says, “I don’t have that anger and hatred and that fight in me, because now I know another version of it.”
Darby of the NAACP is unmoved.
“When I grew up, the ancestors of those that revere the flag wrote my history books, and in those days, when there was no challenge to the flag, there was no such thing as a suggestion of a Confederate of color,” Darby says. “Everybody was white in that army and the only black folks were the happy darkies who were back on the plantation.”
Glenn McConnell, the lead Confederate in the Senate and Ford’s tutor on the War of Secession, concedes the point.
“Sadly, with Jim Crow days and segregation in the South, they weren’t going to brag about the fact that the Confederate armies were integrated,” says McConnell, standing inside his store, CSA Galleries. The shop sells everything from Civil War art and memorabilia to re-enactors’ hats and hardtack and McConnell’s own line of Southern confections with the “taste that secedes.” It’s also well stocked with art and books commemorating blacks who wore both blue and gray.
“It’s part of the story that got forgotten,” he says.
But remembrance is on the rise. John Brannen, a Charleston musician helping to coordinate radio and TV ads in defense of the Capitol’s flag, hopes to use descendants of black Confederates to plead the case that the flag belongs to them as well.
That’s something Harrison, the sergeant with the 37th, says he’s known since he was a child in Pennsylvania.
“I was taught the North was all Negro-loving and the South was all racist and slave-holding,” Harrison says. But his Virginia-born mother straightened him out, recounting “how her grandfather used to set all the grandkids around the fireside and tell them stories about blacks going to fight for Dixie.”
Last fall, Harrison achieved a lifelong ambition: He moved South with his wife and two children. But he launched his research odyssey during his student days at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, after a professor described blacks joining in the Confederate defense of Vicksburg.
Two Februarys ago, working at the public library in York, Pa., Harrison created a minor furor by devoting the Black History month window to black Confederates. A major furor followed last April when Harrison’s Confederate History Month window paid tribute to Nathan Bedford Forrest _ slave dealer, Confederate commander accused of permitting the massacre of black Union soldiers, and founder of the original Ku Klux Klan.
“He’s a personal hero,” Harrison says. He explains that Forrest was an unusually humane slave trader, that the massacre accusations proved inconclusive, and that, as he learned while doing his college thesis on the Klan, Forrest’s original KKK was far less pernicious than its later incarnations, and that Forrest disbanded it when he saw it going bad.
Perhaps most notably for Harrison, Forrest brought 45 slaves to war with him in exchange for their freedom. “These boys stayed with me,” Forrest famously said three years after the war ended, “and better Confederates did not live.”
Harrison palms a small picture of Forrest, bought off the Internet auction house eBay, and contemplates the burden of history.
“It’s sometimes real lonely trying to present a part of history nobody understands,” he says.


Written by jonathantilove

July 7, 2012 at 9:06 pm

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