In her welcoming remarks at the event on Saturday, Jennifer Thomson, 2nd District chair of the Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, reported that she had spearheaded an effort to get a historical highway marker for Susie Gibson, a beloved African American educator and school supervisor in Bedford County from 1909 to 1949.
Afterward, Thomson told me that a DNA test had shown she was 1 percent African.
I said, “Where did that come from?”
A genealogical librarian at the Bedford Museum and Genealogical Library, Thomson traced her family line to New Orleans — and to a great-great-great-grandfather who appeared to be French Creole and had been a member of the same social club as Homer Plessy.
Plessy, also French Creole — he described himself as “seven eighths Caucasian, one eighth African” — was arrested in 1892 for refusing to give up his seat on a whites-only train car. He became the plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court civil rights case, Plessy v. Ferguson, which became the legal basis for “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws throughout the South.
“All of that is part of my history now, along with the Confederate side,” she said with wide-eyed delight. “I have to embrace it all.”
And Susie Gibson is now the first African American to have a highway marker in Bedford County, Va.
Brandon Dorsey, former commander of the Lexington-based Sons of Confederate Veterans Stonewall Brigade Camp and now the group’s spokesman, said he’d been wrestling with race and history ever since the NAACP began a campaign in the early 1990s to remove Confederate flags from public spaces.
“I’d been going to Civil War reenactments with my grandfather ever since I was a child, and all of a sudden all that seemed good to me had people screaming at me,” said Dorsey, who works as a land surveyor. “I want to be proud of my history, but I also have to do self- examination. Is there really anything of value here, or are we simply celebrating military prowess? Why are we portrayed as being so much more racist than other whites, which I know is not true?”
Dorsey had made a tour of black Confederate heritage sites part of the Lee-Jackson Day commemoration. And he tried to get a historical marker for Jim Lewis, Stonewall Jackson’s black manservant, put up in Lexington. But that effort backfired.
“I was taking heat on both sides,” he recalled. “Some of our guys were saying I had surrendered. On the other side, you had left-leaning whites not wanting to honor the man who cared for Stonewall’s horse. At these community meetings, there’d be two groups of white people arguing and the black people just sitting there looking at us like, ‘What are they talking about?’ ”
Before giving his keynote speech, Civil War book author Phil Leigh made an offhand remark discounting the role of slavery in the war. Another man overheard him and pointed out that nearly all the states that seceded from the Union had cited the preservation of slavery as a main reason.
That was it. End of the exchange. The topic of slavery as a cause for the war was still much too hot to be debated, at least not at a Lee-Jackson Day event.
But race was still on the menu.
Leigh’s address included the story of John F. Harris, a black Confederate veteran who served in the Mississippi legislature in 1890. Harris had given a heartfelt speech in support of a bill that would allocate $10,000 for a Confederate memorial.
The point being, if a black legislator was supporting Confederate memorials back in the 1890s, they couldn’t be monuments to white supremacy, as many people see them today.
“ ‘I, too, wore the gray, the same color my master wore,’ ” Leigh quoted Harris, who had fought at Seven Pines near Richmond. “ ‘I want to honor those brave men who died for their convictions. When my mother died, I was a boy. Who, sir, then acted the part of a mother to an orphaned slave boy, but my old missus? Were she living now . . . she would tell me to vote for this bill.’ ”
Leigh gave a moving and verified account of what he said. But therein was the problem with how we see history. There’s always more to the story. Harris’s support for the Confederate monument went beyond his professed reverence for the dead.
It was a compromise effort to get more white legislators to oppose a newly drafted Mississippi constitution. Harris failed, and the new state constitution was passed — a document born of white terrorist opposition to Reconstruction, drafted with the intention of disenfranchising black voters, institutionalizing racial segregation and creating a white supremacist power structure that, as it turned out, would rule the state for much of the next 100 years.
And when the Confederate statue that Harris had voted for was erected, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind what it symbolized.
The theme for the weekend commemoration of Lee-Jackson Day was “Defending Confederate Memorials.” But it wasn’t just memorials, it was memory and identity, wrapped in a narrative of race, place and war.
As Thomson said, it’s all part of our history now. Some we can celebrate; some we can learn not to repeat. But we must embrace it all.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.