The men, wearing Confederate gray, and their wives, decked out in hoop dresses, listened attentively early last month as the speaker made the introductions at the annual dinner of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Suffolk, Va.

"We have a very special lady with us tonight," Sons commander F. Lee Hart III said from the podium, "a very gracious lady, a lady who understands us and is proud of her heritage, and we are proud of her. Stand up, Katheryne Hamilton."

With that, up stood a black woman, the only one in the room. Recovering from her surprise, she smiled and nodded at the room full of people who applauded her, a hundred people who easily can--and readily do--recite their ancestors' contributions to the Southern cause.

Now she was one of them. Her great-grandfather, Jason Boone, a freeborn black man, had served as a laborer for three years with the 41st Virginia Infantry, which saw action at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and took part in the surrender at Appomattox Court House.

She rose again a few minutes later with the others and recited the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by the salute to the flag of Virginia, followed by one more salute: "I salute the Confederate Flag," she read from her program, "with affection, reverence and undying devotion to the cause for which it stands."

How did Hamilton feel about expressing "reverence" for the Confederate flag?

"I feel fine," she said. "I'm not supposed to feel all right, I guess, but I do. I feel all of this is very important to me and my family."

Hamilton's interest in her great-grandfather's military service has unnerved some relatives, who said some things should be left alone. In October, when Hamilton decided to allow the Sons to conduct a Confederate ceremony at the dedication for Boone's new military marker, some family members were appalled. They did not want the Confederate battle flag flying at any ceremony for their kin.

For most African Americans, the easily recognized square red banner with crisscrossing blue-and-white bars decorated with 13 white stars has become a despised symbol associated with the Ku Klux Klan and skinheads, who have adopted the battle flag despite protests from the Sons.

The flag Hamilton saluted that evening, and the one used at the gravestone dedication, is not the battle flag. It is a larger banner known as the Confederate national flag, which has the blue and white bars in the upper left corner.

Hamilton is sensitive to any inference that she was manipulated by the Sons, a pawn in the hands of what some regard as a racist organization. She points out that she sought them out.

"I went to the Sons to ask for their help," she said.

She had called Hart more than a year ago to ask his assistance in obtaining an official military stone for Boone, whose only marker at the time was a concrete block. She had only recently discovered Boone's Confederate records and knew from newspaper articles that Hart had arranged for markers for other Confederate veterans.

She gave Hart copies of Boone's Virginia state pension records and he sent them, along with an application for a new stone, to the Veterans Administration in Washington. By September, the stone was finished and sent to Hart.

The front of the stone reads: "JASON BOONE GAVE VALUABLE AID TO CO. K, 41 VA. INF., C.S.A., 1831--1936, AGE 105, FREE BORN."

Hamilton, a hospice nurse, paid for additional engraving on the back: "BORN APRIL, 1831, SON OF JOHN AND PATSY SKEETER, HUSBAND OF MEDIAN REID BOONE AND PRICILLA CHALK BOONE, FATHER OF 30 CHILDREN, SERVED IN THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES, A FARMER, DIED OCT. 20, 1936, ERECTED 1999 THE YEAR OF HIS 168TH BIRTHDAY."

One evening during the summer, Hart and others came to Hamilton's home in Portsmouth to explain how they would conduct the dedication ceremony. The Confederate flag would be laid across Boone's grave and reenactors would carry other Confederate flags.

"They were very matter-of-fact," she said. "I told them I had a problem with them displaying the flag because this is a black community. I said, 'I don't think the battle flag will be accepted.' "

She said Hart told her, "This is our symbol. This is our emblem. I can't ask the Sons not to use it."

Hamilton thought about that. She prayed and consulted with her daughters, Tanya and Kristin.

Hamilton said people often fear what they don't understand, so she read about the war and the flags' history. She listened to what some of the Sons had to say. She came to see the flags of the Confederacy differently, she said. In its historic setting, it was the battle flag that black and white Southerners rallied around as they marched off to war in defense of their state, homes and families.

She decided to go ahead with the service.

"We can't judge 1865 by the standards of 1999," she said. "I decided that I didn't own Jason Boone and I had no rights to him. This is the thing to do for Jason and Jason marched under that flag. He wasn't ashamed. He was proud of it. I can't be in the way of that."

Family research showed that Skeetertown, where Boone lived, was a racially mixed community. Hamilton traces her ancestry to Joe Skeeter, a white surveyor who arrived from France or England in the 1750s. One of his daughters, Betsy Skeeter, had children of mixed blood by one or possibly two husbands. Boone was a grandson of Betsy Skeeter.

Hamilton said she doesn't know how Boone came to join the army--whether he was conscripted or he volunteered--but she leans toward the volunteer scenario because he joined about the same time his white neighbors signed up.

"It was a different time than now," Hamilton said. "You viewed your neighbor differently. I know my neighbors by sight. In Jason's time, you knew your neighbors well, and you were there for them and they were there for you."

Black history expert and George Washington University history professor James Horton said he doubts that Boone, even as a freeborn black, would have volunteered because of Virginia's steadfast support of slavery. If Boone volunteered, then he would have also supported slavery, Horton said.

"It's not impossible that he volunteered, because there were slave-holding blacks," Horton said. "People do what they must do to survive and support a family, to cope with a difficult situation. I won't give the guy a hard time for doing what he had to do."

As one of thousands of black and white laborers who dug trenches and built breastworks quickly, Boone did work that was indispensable to the army's defenses. The Virginia government voted in 1924 to recognize people such as Boone for their contribution to the Confederate army and offered pensions. Boone got one the same year.

The grave marker ceremony was held on a crisp October Saturday, in the small Landa Cemetery in the Skeetertown section of Suffolk. The one-lane dirt road leading to the burial ground was crammed with cars. About 50 family members attended, along with dozens of Sons and United Daughters of the Confederacy wearing period dress.

Boone's grave was covered by the Confederate national flag and the new memorial stone concealed by a white cloth. A contingent of Sons from Rocky Mount, N.C., hauled a cannon into the cemetery and fired it three times at the end of the ceremony.

Hamilton spoke, as did her daughter Kristin.

So did Edward Smith, an American University history professor and co-founder of the Civil War Institute. From the podium, he looked out at Hamilton and her family seated in what was clearly the place of honor, "a portrait framed by all these white people all around them who were honoring the honored guests."

"I am a historian," he told the audience of about 200, "and this is history, and you are a part of it. This is a first, something I never thought I'd live to see."

Smith called Hamilton a pioneer, a black woman accepting her ties to the Confederacy.

"That was unprecedented," he said.

Hamilton always knew her great-grandfather's name but she didn't know of his involvement in the war until about a year ago, when other relatives found his pension papers. Because most of the Confederacy's military records were destroyed when Richmond was abandoned, state officials asked those applying for pensions to have someone vouch for their wartime duty.

Boone sent in his application on March 14, 1924, when he was 91 years old. He stated that he had been in the infantry and rendered service by "ditching, grading and throwing up breast works" from 1862 until the end of the war.

His income at the time was listed as "nothing."

Suffolk insurance company owner J. Walter Hosier supported Boone's application, saying he "is one of the most worthy and loyal old Negroes in this section, and if the application is in due form I trust that he may have a check as soon as convenient."

He said the check could be sent to his business address because Boone moved frequently between the homes of his 25 surviving children and 100 grandchildren. Boone was approved for a monthly $6.25 pension beginning that year and received it until his death 12 years later.

Hamilton said the only description she has of Boone is that he was 5 feet 4 inches tall. She said as a teenager he was apprenticed to the Hosier family to learn farming skills. By the time he went into the service, he owned a farm, was married and had two children.

Other family research turned up information that demonstrates the divisiveness of the war. Boone's brother William fought for the Union. Another brother, Anthony, also served the Confederate side.

The national office of the Sons said it does not keep records by race and does not know how many other African Americans have received the same recognition as Boone.

On a recent Sunday, Hart, Hamilton and her daughters and two grandsons returned to Landa Cemetery to visit Boone's grave. Hamilton and Hart strolled through the cemetery, pausing to read inscriptions. He listened respectfully while she explained how she was related to them.

Hamilton said some of the relatives who had objected to the ceremony have now asked for photographs from the graveside ceremonies as a keepsake.

Tanya Hamilton, 24, stood near her great-great-grandfather's grave and spoke of how her life had changed since she and her mother and sister had decided to have the full ceremony at the cemetery on Oct. 23.

"I feel wonderful about the service," she said. "It used to be when I saw the flag, I disliked it. But after I found out the history of the flag, I know the history. Now when I see it, I realize it's part of their heritage."

She paused for a moment.

"It's part of my heritage."

CAPTION: Katheryne Hamilton recently learned that her black ancestor, Jason Boone, was in the Confederate army.

CAPTION: Justin Andrew Batts, a great-great-great-grandson of Jason Boone, runs across the Boone family's plot in Skeetertown, Va. Boone's new marker is in the foreground.