De­fend­ing Dixie

In Vir­ginia, where the heart of the Con­fed­er­acy beats strong, flag-rever­ing groups say their sym­bol, and their iden­ti­ties, are un­der at­tack.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY JOHN WOODROW COX

Hours be­fore a Con­fed­er­acy-ob­sessed white gun­man mas­sa­cred nine black church­go­ers in South Carolina, one of the many Vir­ginia groups de­voted to the South­ern cause’s history posted a mes­sage on Face­book.

“BIG, BIG day for us in the Cap­i­tal of the Con­fed­er­acy,” the Vir­ginia Flag­gers wrote. “Please be in prayer for us as we for­ward the col­ors, en­deavor to shine the light of truth, and ed­u­cate a mis­guided public about the honor and glory of our Con­fed­er­ate an­ces­tors. Photos and re­port to fol­low. ON­WARD!”

What fol­lowed was a protest in Rich­mond out­side the Vir­ginia Mu­seum of Fine Arts, which in 2010 re­moved Con­fed­er­ate flags from the prop­erty’s Con­fed­er­ate Me­mo­rial Chapel. The de­mon­stra­tors, who num­bered no more than about 10, planted their lawn chairs on the curb­side grass and pa­trolled the side­walks, wav­ing bat­tle flags and shar­ing their pur­pose with passersby.

“Re­turn the flags,” read one man’s shirt. “Re­store the honor.”

Per­haps nowhere in the coun­try is the cult of the Con­fed­er­acy more fer­vent than in Vir­ginia, the birthplace of its bat­tle flag and its most renowned mil­i­tary com­man­der. But sud­denly, af­ter the South Carolina car­nage, the com­mon­wealth’s le­gions of reen­ac­tors, de­scen­dants of South­ern sol­diers, Robert E. Lee devo­tees and flag-rever­ing groups now think that their beloved iconog­ra­phy — and iden­ti­ties — are un­der siege.

“This is an at­tack on us and our fam­i­lies and our her­itage,” said Frank Earnest, a for­mer com­man­der of the Vir­ginia di­vi­sion of the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans.

A dra­matic back­lash against all things Con­fed­er­ate has swept across the na­tion the past two weeks. Re­tail giants an­nounced bans of re­lated mer­chan­dise as law­mak­ers in states from South Carolina to Ari­zona called for the re­moval of flags, the top­pling of me­mo­ri­als and the chang­ing of school names.

On Thurs­day, “Black Lives Mat­ter” was found spray-painted on the Jef­fer­son Davis mon­u­ment in Rich­mond, and ear­lier in the week, Vir­ginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) an­nounced that he would phase out a state-spon­sored spe­cialty li­cense plate that fea­tures an im­age of a Rebel ban­ner and is avail­able only to the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans.

That de­ci­sion in­censed Earnest. The Vir­ginia Beach res­i­dent dis­plays the plate on his Ford work van, which is also adorned on both sides with the less rec­og­niz­able Con­fed­er­ate flag known as the Stars and Bars. He used that one, he said, be­cause the broad X of the bat­tle flag would have made it too dif­fi­cult to list his com­pany’s phone num­ber and name, Earnest Con­tract­ing. (Among his great­est re­grets: not choos­ing the name Con­fed­er­ate Con­tract­ing when he ap­plied for a busi­ness li­cense two decades ago.)

On the con­tin­uum of Vir­gini­ans who ven­er­ate the Rebel legacy — rang­ing from white su­prem­a­cists to bona fide his­to­ri­ans — Earnest is among the most de­voted. And, he said, no one’s rea­son is more valid.

Earnest, who re­called first don­ning the garb of a Rebel soldier at age 6, said more than a dozen of his an­ces­tors fought for the South. He and his wife, a mem­ber of the United Daugh­ters of the Con­fed­er­acy, mar­ried at a Ch­e­sa­peake Public Li­brary dur­ing a Civil War event. She wore a pe­riod-spe­cific white dress; he wore the uni­form of a Rebel Naval of­fi­cer.

His drawl South­ern and beard gray, the 59-year-old por­trays a Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral at Civil War events and, some­times, a Ger­man of­fi­cer (the oc­ca­sional “y’all,” he ad­mits, still slips out).

Earnest, a vet­eran of the Navy, of­ten refers to the Union as “them” and the Con­fed­er­acy as “we,” and when asked whether he wishes his side had won the Civil War, he said: “I think it would be an in­sult to my an­ces­tors to say any­thing other than ‘Ab­so­lutely, I wish they had.’ ”

Slav­ery, he in­sisted, would have soon ended any­way.

The com­mon­wealth’s zeal for the Con­fed­er­acy has long gen­er­ated con­tro­versy.

Washington and Lee Univer­sity, which once owned slaves, re­moved bat­tle flags from its chapel last year af­ter black stu­dents com­plained that the school, south­west of Char­lottesville, was un­wel­com­ing to mi­nori­ties. For­mer gover­nor Robert F. McDon­nell was sharply crit­i­cized in 2010 af­ter declar­ing a “Con­fed­er­ate History Month” and, in a procla­ma­tion, omit­ting slav­ery’s role in the war. “Carry Me Back to Old Vir­ginia,” which in­cludes ref­er­ences to “this old darkey” and “massa,” was the state song un­til 18 years ago.

But it’s the bat­tle flag that’s at the cen­ter of the is­sue. Earnest, the Vir­ginia Flag­gers and many oth­ers main­tain that it is a sym­bol not of ha­tred and racism but their proud South­ern her­itage.

Ed­ward L. Ay­ers, a renowned his­to­rian, said the sym­bol isn’t, and never has been, within their con­trol.

“What they don’t rec­og­nize is they can’t just tell ev­ery­body else to ig­nore all the other mean­ings that it’s ac­crued,” said Ay­ers, pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Rich­mond. “They can’t just take away the parts of history that they wish hadn’t hap­pened.”

Be­yond its af­fil­i­a­tion with slav­ery, the ban­ner was used dur­ing de­seg­re­ga­tion by South­ern politi­cians and Ku Klux Klan mem­bers who, some­times vi­o­lently, re­sisted the push for equal­ity.

State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) was born dur­ing that era. An im­age of Lee hung over his boy­hood bed.

To ex­plain the evo­lu­tion of his think­ing since then, Deeds first quoted a pas­sage from Wil­liam Faulkner’s “In­truder in the Dust.” “For ev­ery South­ern boy four­teen years old,” it be­gins, as it de­scribes a child see­ing him­self at Get­tys­burg and imag­in­ing that Pick­ett’s fate­ful charge never hap­pened and that history was al­tered.

“Of course, Faulkner was only talk­ing about white boys,” Deeds said. “But the boys he was talk­ing about, my gen­er­a­tion was prob­a­bly the last of them. I’m 57.”

And although some mem­bers of his gen­er­a­tion have not pro­gressed be­yond that fan­tasy, Deeds quoted from the apos­tle Paul in the Bi­ble to de­scribe how he has: “When I be­came a man, I put away child­ish things.”

In 1999, Deeds, then a del­e­gate, fought against the Con­fed­er­ate plates, ar­gu­ing that such an of­fen­sive sym­bol should not be spon­sored by the state.

“For me,” he ex­plained, “it was not good enough to just say, ‘I’m a son of the South, and my an­ces tors were Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers, and by golly that’s how it’s al­ways go­ing to be.’ ”

What con­cerns Deeds and many oth­ers, in­clud­ing Robert Lee Hodge, is how far the back­lash will reach.

Born on Stonewall Jack­son’s birth­day, Hodge was named for Lee af­ter his older brother, a Civil War en­thu­si­ast, sug­gested it. He al­ways has been fas­ci­nated with the Con­fed­er­acy. For his first­grade school photo, he wore a cap or­na­mented with a square bat­tle flag. At age 9, the day af­ter watch­ing “The Red Badge of Courage,” his mother asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“An art di­rec­tor on Civil War films,” Hodge told her.

He did, in fact, be­come an award-win­ning film­maker of Civil War doc­u­men­taries, and he has been a reen­ac­tor since 1981.

The sud­den up­heaval has shak- en Hodge, who is also a mem­ber of the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans. Be­fore re­cently mov­ing to Ten­nessee, he had lived in Vir­ginia for more than two decades, and he re­turns to par­tic­i­pate in Civil War events — though, now, Hodge doubts he’ll con­tinue.

“I’d be too self-con­scious,” he said.

Hodge, 48, won­ders now whether he’ll have to re­move an im­age of the Con­fed­er­ate flag from the DVD case for one of his films, whether the flags over Con­fed­er­ate forts will be stripped off, whether — as lead­ers in at least two Vir­ginia cities have sug­gested — Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments will be re­moved.

“I’d hate to see some of these things pulled down,” he said. “History is warts and all. Painful warts and all.”

Edna Greene Med­ford, an African Amer­i­can, lived through that pain. Raised in seg­re­gated Charles City County, east of Rich­mond, she re­mem­bers when, in mid­dle school, her fa­ther ex­plained racism. Med­ford, now 64, also re­mem­bers the fear that the bat­tle flag trig­gered in her as a child.

Still, the Howard Univer­sity history pro­fes­sor said this sud­den fo­cus on Con­fed­er­ate im­agery is mis­di­rected. It’s easy, she said, to take down ban­ners and stat­ues. It’s harder to con­sider how the killing of the nine black con­gre­gants in Charleston, S.C., re­lates to po­lice vi­o­lence against black men in Bal­ti­more and New York and Fer­gu­son, Mo.

“I’m not con­cerned about who’s on Mon­u­ment Av­enue or who a school is named af­ter,” she said. “We have big­ger is­sues than mon­u­ments.”

 More photos at wapo.st/Con­fed­er­acy.

Frank Earnest, cen­ter, a for­mer of­fi­cial with Vir­ginia’s Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans, says more than a dozen an­ces­tors fought for the South. Clock­wise from top left: A sign on his work van; a hand­ker­chief in his home in Vir­ginia Beach; Earnest’s li­cense plate (the tag shows his ini­tials); and a park­ing sign in the drive­way.

PHOTOS BY JAY WEST­COTT FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Con­fed­er­ate reen­ac­tors with Lee’s Lieu­tenants stand at the grave of a fel­low mem­ber at Stonewal­lMe­mory Gar­dens in­Manas­sas in 2013.

JAY WEST­COTT FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Many ar­ti­facts and mem­o­ra­bilia in Frank Earnest’s home in Vir­ginia Beach com­mem­o­rate the history of the South’s Con­fed­er­acy. Earnest is a for­mer com­man­der of the Vir­ginia di­vi­sion of the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans.

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