Hours before a Confederate-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 outside Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which in 2010 had 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 over the past two weeks. Retail giants announced bans of related merchandise as lawmakers in states from South Carolina to Arizona called for the takedown 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, and 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 U.S. 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.
The battle flag is, of course, at the issue’s center. Earnest, the Virginia Flaggers and many others maintain that it is a symbol not of hatred or racism, but of 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 in 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 never 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 ancestors 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 first-grade 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 mom asked what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“An art director on Civil War films,” Hodge told her.
He did, in fact, grow up to be an award-winning filmmaker of Civil War documentaries and has been a reenactor since 1981.
The sudden upheaval has shaken Hodge, who is also a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Before recently moving to Tennessee, he lived in Virginia for more than two decades and still comes back to participate in Civil War events — though, now, Hodge doubts he’ll continue reenacting.
“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 already, 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 those nine black congregants in Charleston, S.C., relates to police violence against black men in Baltimore and New York City 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.”