The women who erected Confederate statues are stunningly silent

OPINION | Yet again, Americans are struggling to face their history honestly

(iStock/Lily illustration)

Essay by Peter Galuszka. Views expressed are the opinions of the author.

The Boulevard in the Museum District near downtown Richmond boasts of an elegance that escapes many mid-size cities. Anchoring the tree-lined thoroughfare is the grand Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Nearby is the Virginia Historical Society in neoclassical revival style.

Between the two is the mausoleum-like United Daughters of the Confederacy Memorial Building and Great Hall, which is open only to members and their guests. It is the headquarters of an all-female organization that since the 1890s organized the erection of more than 700 memorials across the country — far more than any other group — to recall the glory of the Confederate fighting man.

According to the UDC’s website, the building was “affectionately” dedicated in 1957 “to the Women of the South and to the women of the Confederate States of America for their loyal devotion, self-sacrifice, adaptability to new tasks, constancy of purpose, exemplary faith in never changing principles. In these qualities reposes the memory of the women of the Confederacy.”

Those words, written during Virginia’s “massive resistance” campaign to blunt school integration, seem jarring today. Controversies have flared from Orlando to New Orleans to Kansas City, Mo., all cities that have taken down Confederate memorials.

Virginia is ground zero in the battle over memorials because it has so many. Arguments rage about what to do with them from Alexandria to Charlottesville, where a white-supremacist protest in August against plans to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee brought deadly violence that drew national attention. The white nationalists returned with their torches to Charlottesville last weekend.

As a former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond is stuffed with them, including Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart along grand Monument Avenue just a short walk from the UDC mausoleum. It isn’t certain what the city will do with the memorials. A survey by Christopher Newport University and the Richmond Times-Dispatch shows that 50 percent of Richmond residents and 69 percent of people living in suburban counties oppose moving the statues. Complicating matters is that, unlike in most states, Virginia law requires the state to give approval before the statues can be removed.

So far, the UDC has kept largely silent about the issue. It is in a tough spot. Since its founding in Nashville, the group has been pushing a rosy view of Southern chivalry and grace in defeat that has been a regional mythology for decades.

Membership in the group is open to women at least 16 years old who are “lineal or collateral blood descendants” of people who served in the military or civil services of the Confederacy or “gave material aid to the cause.” How seriously the group takes this isn’t clear.

In my own family mythology, exceptions can be made. In the late 1940s, before I was born, my father was stationed at a Navy facility near Memphis. My mother, a liberal from Upstate New York, was bored. One outlet was a local bridge club, but to play you had to be in the UDC. So, the ladies made her an “honorary” member. I can find no documentary evidence of this.

Besides running chapters and divisions across the country, the low-profile group publishes UDC Magazine 11 times a year. The magazine features historical articles and “Confederate Notes.” Subscriptions are $20 a year. The group also offers scholarships.

I called the group to ask for its views on the Charlottesville debacle and other protests. I was told it did not have a media spokesperson.

A writer for Newsweek had the same experience in August. No phone calls or emails were returned. Finally, the UDC issued a statement that “we are grieved that certain hate groups have taken the Confederate flag and other symbols as their own. . . . The United Daughters of the Confederacy totally denounces any individual or group that promotes racial divisiveness or white supremacy.”

More perspective comes from Karen L. Cox, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who wrote “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.”

In an astute observation, Cox says that the UDC women stepped in because Southern men couldn’t go around building monuments to themselves when they lost the war. “So the narrative became changing the defeat into a sacred cause,” she says.

Cox believes that the UDC eventually will change its exclusive attitudes as the demographics change in the South and more outsiders move in.

But if Virginia’s gubernatorial race next month is any indication, the Old Dominion is still behind the curve. Both candidates agree that any decision about the monuments should be made at the local level. Democratic candidate Ralph Northam would prefer the statues be moved to museums. Republican Ed Gillespie would prefer the statues remain but have context added. Corey A. Stewart, who lost June’s Republican primary to Gillespie and is running for the U.S. Senate next year, has made a cottage industry of protecting Confederate icons.

Instead of responding proactively in the crucial debate, the UDC hunkers down in its bunkerlike mausoleum. The group offers familiar but lame excuses that it is misunderstood. It’s yet another disappointment as Americans struggle to face their history honestly.

This essay originally appeared in The Washington Post.