The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the myth of black Confederates was born

And how a handful of black Southerners helped perpetuate it after the Civil War.

In this July 19, 2011, photo, Confederate battle flags fly outside the museum at the Confederate Memorial Park in Mountain Creek, Ala. (Dave Martin/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

As the nation remains embroiled in debates about the continued prevalence of white supremacy and our fraught race relations — something hammered home yet again with President Trump’s racist tweets about nonwhite Democratic members of Congress — nothing has been more central than deep disagreements over the meaning of Confederate symbols and their continued place in our society.

The deep ties between those symbols and continued racial hatred make it stunning that one of the most vigorous defenders of Confederate symbols and the message of “Heritage, Not Hate” is an African American.

Over the past 20 years, H.K. Edgerton — a onetime president of the Asheville branch of the NAACP — has become one of the most popular attractions in the Confederate heritage movement. At gatherings of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy, his performances vindicate the belief of white audiences that the Confederacy did not fight to preserve the institution of slavery and that thousands of enslaved men fought as soldiers in the Southern army.

While both of these claims are false, Edgerton is not the first African American to perpetuate a distorted, celebratory history of the Confederacy. Like those before him, spreading such false stories may bring Edgerton personal fame, but they have dangerous consequences for African Americans pushing for racial equality more broadly.

Slavery was the cornerstone of the Confederacy and its military. During the Civil War, many slaves were forced to accompany their masters into the army as body servants or camp slaves. Their presence on the battlefields and later at reunions reinforced the belief among white Southerners that slavery was benign and that slaves supported the Confederate cause. These men likely chose to take part in these reunions for their own self-interested reasons.

The participation of former camp slaves in Confederate veterans’ reunions preserved a particular memory of the war that overlooked the actual desire of many slaves for freedom. It also reinforced political and racial orthodoxies — notably deference to white authorities — that had taken shape during the antebellum period and was being re-implemented by states as the Jim Crow era descended across the South.

Former camp slaves participated in reunions often under the patronage of their one-time masters or the surviving members of the unit in which they served. Welcomed as “mascots,” a reference that reflected their subordinate status, these African American men secured their reputation by speaking out in favor of the Democratic Party or against the Republican Party. One former Virginia camp slave was described favorably as “entirely unreconstructed” — a shorthand way of stating that he never joined the Republican Party after the war and that he knew his place in society.

Though segregated from white participants in dining, living and even in the public parades themselves, black participants could gain attention and resources by entertaining white crowds with harrowing wartime stories. For example, one elderly black man was welcomed into a private home after sharing how he had carried Stonewall Jackson’s body “to a place of safety” following the accidental shooting of the famed Confederate general at the battle of Chancellorsville. Entertaining white crowds with stories of rescuing famous generals like Jackson may have benefited elderly African Americans financially, at a time when many lived in poverty.

The reality of race relations outside these reunion camps was quite different, however. African Americans in the South continued to push for civil rights in a much-weakened Republican Party and other political organizations. Whites countered black political action with disfranchisement and violence, most notably in the form of lynching. The second-class citizenship former slaves experienced at Confederate reunions reflected their place in a new system of white supremacy. And though these individuals escaped this violence, their participation in celebrating the Confederate legacy likely reinforced and justified the violent responses to the imagined specter of black violence that became a staple of the Jim Crow South.

Some former camp slaves remained little more than a curious sideshow at reunions, but others went out of their way to embrace their roles as cooks and foragers, often reenacting them in a highly caricatured and even comical way for the large crowds. Jefferson Shields cultivated a colorful wartime backstory that placed himself in the camps of both Jackson and Gen. J.E.B. Stuart as a cook. Shields carried a live chicken under his arm at a reunion in Mobile, Ala., in 1910. “When asked what he was doing with the chicken,” noted a reporter, “he replied that he was just carrying his lunch.”

Arguably, the best-known former camp slave and forager was Steve “Eberhart” Perry, who became a major attraction at Confederate reunions and other public events. He was easily singled out by his flamboyant dress, which included a tall, feathered stovepipe hat, live hens under each arm and a brightly colored sash embroidered with the words “ROME, GA.” U.S. and Confederate flags pins attached to his shoulder boards rounded out this unusual costume. He depicted the role of forager to remind veterans of the important role camp slaves played in securing what limited food was available to the army.

But former camp slaves like Perry were also objects of ridicule — crowds were laughing at them, not with them — reinforcing the worst stereotypes of the happy slave, who enjoyed nothing more than entertaining white crowds. Audiences likely cared little for the history embodied in these costumes and instead viewed the men in such clothing as a spectacle, not unlike popular minstrel shows.

So why would these African American men participate in a such a demeaning venture? The historical record offers little evidence to answer this question. Some certainly hoped to remain in the good graces of the white community or even profit financially as a result of their participation. Perry adopted the surname of his former master, “Eberhart,” specifically for these occasions, which suggests that he may have intentionally assumed a different persona as a way of maintaining his own dignity while assuming a subordinate role.

Ultimately, the presence of former camp slaves at Confederate veterans’ events showed how powerful the social, economic and cultural legacy of slavery was in the post-Civil War era. Perry thanked his white benefactors following one reunion. “I shall ever remain in my place,” he reassured his fellow citizens, “and be obedient to all the white people. I pray that the angels may guard the homes of all Rome, and the light of God shine upon them.”

Given this history, it’s unsurprising that Confederate heritage groups have embraced Edgerton today at a time when Confederate monuments are being removed or relocated. Edgerton’s appearance in uniform challenges the growing acceptance that the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments commemorate a cause that at its core was about the preservation of slavery and white supremacy.

But not only is Edgerton peddling falsehoods refuted by countless historians of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, but he’s also hurting himself and other African Americans by providing cover for white Southerners insisting upon continuing to venerate this fundamentally racist past instead of grappling with its harmful legacies. While racism in politics today — especially that coming from the White House — is preventing us from achieving racial equality in America, the continued myth that Confederates fought for something other than racism and oppression is an equally tall barrier to finally overcoming the darkest chapter of our past.