The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

His grandfather was a slave. Now he’s a vocal champion for Confederate monuments.

Nelson Winbush holds the Confederate flag that draped his grandfather’s casket. Louis Napoleon Nelson was a soldier in the Confederate army. (Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post)

About US is a new initiative by The Washington Post to cover issues of identity in the United States. Look for the About US newsletter launching this fall.

ST. CLOUD, Fla. — Nelson Winbush relishes talking about his grandfather’s time as a Confederate soldier, fighting at the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader and imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

The 88-year-old retired Florida educator proudly wears hats, shirts and a belt buckle emblazoned with Confederate flags. And he’s the star of a video featuring members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, in which he talks about the flag’s history, calling it a symbol of Christianity, not slavery.

Winbush is also black, and so was his grandfather.

“When I joined, it wasn’t any kind of rebellion,” Winbush said of his membership with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He voted to install a Confederate monument in a veterans park near his home, where a tribute to Union soldiers already stood. “I wanted to set the record straight. A lot of people thought blacks fled, but blacks fought in every state.”

Protesters marched to the Manatee County Courthouse in Bradenton, Fla., on Aug. 21 to call for the removal of a Confederate monument in front of the building. (Video: AmbulanceDriver/Twitter, whenimnotdrawing/Instagram)

New Confederate monuments are still being built across the country — even in Union states

Winbush said he learned of his grandfather’s devotion to the Confederacy during horse and buggy rides that he took with the veteran when he was a child.

As his grandfather Louis Napoleon Nelson told it, he followed his master and sons into the war, first working as a cook but later serving as a rifleman and chaplain to both black and white soldiers.

Winbush said his grandfather believed he was defending his home state of Tennessee from “Yankee” invaders, not fighting to preserve slavery. His final wish, Winbush said, was that he be buried in his Confederate uniform.

This pride has been embraced by Winbush, who joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans nearly three decades ago. In one of the videos he has appeared in for the group, he speaks of black soldiers serving alongside white soldiers as equals in the Confederate Army. At one point, he holds up an application his grandfather filed with the federal government in 1920 for a federal pension. The document shows the application was accepted.

“Did black Confederates fight?” he says in the video. “I rest my case with this.”

David Blight, a professor of American history at Yale University, said there were black Confederate soldiers, but most historians do not believe there is evidence that they served voluntarily and that they were treated as equals during the war. The Constitution of the Confederate States of America explicitly states that slavery was a central cause for the South’s decision to fight to secede.

Blight said the version of events that recalls black soldiers as co-signers to the Confederate Army’s mission emerged after the war, growing out of the Lost Cause tradition.

‘What’s up with the Nazi flag?’: A lifelong Southerner goes to battle over neighbor’s display

In the 1980s and 1990s, Blight said, the Sons of Confederate Veterans began to promote this as historical fact, saying that many Southern blacks had supported the war.

“It’s a popular mythology — the trusted, contented slave,” Blight said. “And if you want the Confederacy to be somehow palatable in the post-civil rights era, it helps if people believe there were a whole lot of black people who supported it.”

Michael Landree, executive director of the national Sons of Confederate Veterans, said history supports Blight’s version only because “the victor always writes the history.” That’s why his group is opening a $5 million, 18,500-square-foot museum to the Confederacy next year in Tennessee.

“It will include exhibits and stories from soldiers of all different faiths and backgrounds,” Landree said. “It will include black veterans, Native Americans, Jews and Catholics. The diversity of the Confederacy was tremendous.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans has repeatedly turned to Winbush to help further, as Landree described it, the “Southern version of the war” and has enlisted him to help promote the group’s logo, which includes a Confederate battle flag.

Stone Mountain: The ugly past — and fraught future — of the biggest Confederate monument

When Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) began his successful effort in 2015 to ban and recall Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates with the Confederate flag logo in his state, the group flew Winbush in to speak at a state legislative hearing. NAACP officials argued that the flag was a racist symbol. Winbush argued the opposite.

“This is probably the most misunderstood flag in the whole world,” he testified, saying the blue stripes and red field represent Christianity and purity. “People are ignorant of what it represents and why it was designed.”

The hearing showed what an enigma the former educator had become. Far from estranged from the NAACP and other black groups, Winbush served as grand marshal in a Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. parade near his home in Kissimmee, Fla., five months before he testified at the license plate hearing.

More from About US:

I’m a descendant of the Cherokee Nation’s black slaves. Tribal citizenship is our birthright.

Confederate monuments are more than reminders of our racist past. They are symbols of our racist present.

‘Identity politics for white people’: Experts debate who gets to appeal to race in American politics