The Confederacy’s Sons (and black daughter)
Full-spectrum Stories from Greensboro + a writer’s country cabin
“Is there a…meeting here tonight?” I awkwardly asked the waitress.
“Um, yeah” she replied with a strange hesitance as she looked me up and down. “In the back” — she pointed to a meeting room with the sound of people talking and eating inside.
Two men of color waited on a to-go order nearby, certainly within hearing range. I felt a terrible awkwardness and fear rise inside me. A distinct guilt took shape. I wanted to explain why I was there — I wasn’t against them, I was an ally, a fellow American — I was…a white guy at a Sons of Confederate Veterans gathering.
It was the wrong place.
The other barber shop, the one she told me about, wasn’t there anymore. Hell, I was getting shaggy. Haircut and beard-cuts were not a starting roadtrip priority, when it was still summer.
“Wow — I’ve been on the road a while now” I thought, looking in the glass reflection on the side of the Buick — my hair falling every which way, my facial hair flaring out like a sign of the road’s freedom.
This was a barber shop, one on the way to WoolWorth’s counter downtown — and the Confederate Veterans meeting later that night.
Would the Confederate Sons be able to tell I had gone from one end of the culture spectrum to theirs?
At Bess Cuts, I stood out — the only customer on a lazy afternoon, and likely the only white customer in a long while. It was a repeat of a scene from a few years ago, when I went to a similar joint in Albuquerque — my friend Andre called it his “ethnic hair shop”. He drove down from Santa Fe when we worked state politics there together.
“Other barbers don’t know how to cut black hair.”
Lesson: The record only screeches to a stop if you act the part, if you make it stop with your own insecurity.
Two guys played Madden football on the screen in the back. Another read a magazine, wearing headphones. A fourth got up slowly from his barbers chair with slightly raised eyebrows and asked “Can I help you wit somethin?”
Maybe I was lost, needed direction — not here for a haircut, right?
I pointed out the whiskers growing into my mouth from my upper lip. He went to work on my shaggy, roadtrip-weary hair as soon as I sat down.
“My son kept me up all night — bad dreams and that. You know how it is.”
He asked if I was from Greensboro.
“Nah, coming down from Pennsylvania on a roadtrip, just passing through. Talking to people as I go.”
He asked what I thought about Trump. Since he was “making America great again“ — when it was going to happen?
“He acts like Americans, actually” I said.
“He doesn’t seem to listen or want to talk. I’ve noticed that as I travel. People need to talk, but they’re not talking to each other much.”
I continued on the mission, the state of America.
“Even the fact that you and I are talking — this doesn’t happen much“
He shook his head and raised his eyebrows, nodding as he carefully spritzed my (wanna-be) beard with alcohol and shaped the edges.
The loud hip-hop from a central, tower speaker over-powered some of the statements. I awkwardly asked for repeats. It didn’t help the flow of the conversation.
Hey white boy, re-meet the modern, black barbershop.
When asked about fears for his son, he noted education and what work he would find.
“Lack of knowledge will kill you”
Like the old-school barber shops I’d been to before, he didn’t ask permission or hesitate.
When I laid back, he went to work with a white- handled straight razor, precisely edging and sculpting every section of hair with alcohol, blades, trimmers, and a steel plate.
Even my nose hairs were shorter.
“ I’d like to live in Greensboro — but all the craziness… There’s too much crime, and I want to raise my son away from that.”
When you coming back to Greensboro?” He asked.
You stop back, I’ll take care of you, all right?”
At the International Civil Rights Museum, an overly positive gift shop clerk had me pose by the huge picture of the four, famous sit-in men.
They sat through spit, thrown food and garbage, slurs of the worst and wicked kind.
It happened at the Woolsworth lunch counter in early 1960.
“Should you be in a picture, next to a picture like that?” I thought.
My face contorted between stoicism and a tourist’s auto-smile.
It wasn’t right — like a form of deprecation via civil rights tourism.
I would not let that happen again. I share it to note the wrong way to honor history lessons:
Learning and listening versus posing and entertainment.
The Sons of the Confederacy eat at Captain Bill’s
Brock, the retired finance guy and Harley rider, sat across from me.
He poked at his all-fried basket of seafood and fries. We spoke small — mostly on my drive from Pennsylvania. He had taken his cycle on that route. When the other guys wanted to stick to the Interstate, he broke off and wound through the smaller roads — a shared mentality on road trip driving strategy.
So far, it was just another gathering (minus the flags and costumes). My fears and cautiousness persisted only from the curious and semi-stern stares at the new guy from around the room. The waitress brought a lifeless shrimp salad for me to focus on for a while. I read the newsletter at each table.
As we ate, two men in suits shuffled throughout the room, passing out cards and filing sheets for upcoming events at the State Fair and local parades. They shifted there eyes between each other and me. One approached my table after Brock seemed to vouch for my presence.
Hey there. Are you a member? What’s your name?
Ah no, I’m Travis, been driving through on a roadtrip from Pennsylvania and saw this was happening. Wanted to learn some history, see what was happening. OK to listen as a guest?
Pennsylvania! We got some members up there. Should be ok…you’re just wanting to learn something huh? I’ll have to check with the Commander…
He looked me up and down with uncertainty after writing my name down. Walking back to the front, he knelt next to the other suited man. They whispered and looked sternly in my direction.
The Commander rose and introduced himself as Jeff.
Jeff Frank, I’m the Commander here. What’s your name again?
His mustache twitched with nervous energy as he wrote and had me spell my last name. I had said it under my breath as first. I even considered using my middle name.
He handed me a brochure and said simply and sharply “guests who want to learn are welcome.”
Would they see my Roadtrip posts? Were they vetting all outsiders, afraid of spies and protestors?
Too late now, I’m all in and honest.
Dinner was over. The real meeting was about to begin. The Sub-Commander pitched the latest book in the SCV Book Club (special price of members. I escaped for a breather, and to pay my bill at the front for a quicker post-gathering getaway.
Looking over the hostess’s shoulder to the kitchen, I watched a black chef handed off plates to Hispanic servers.
What did he feel when they carried the flags in earlier?
Did I taste any spit in my shrimp salad?
A few minutes later, the meeting began with a series of unknown chants and a song — The Confederate Anthem of Dixie.
After recording the start, I paused to listen.
The SCV went through general business, reciting average updates on events and activities since the last gathering. Nothing stood out — until the main speakers were introduced.
Eric Richardson was introduced as a professor of history. The woman who rose to join him at the podium was nameless and of color.
As he spoke, the black woman asked a series of questions from a page so Eric could answer. She had carried a sign — “save our monuments” — as she went up to the front.
“The Army Of Occupation” and US government caused a crisis by crippling Southern economies with veteran support responsibilities and making it illegal.
“The South doesn’t like depending on the federal government for anything.”
The woman asked about men of color receiving benefits.
The speaker responded with the need for white witnesses to testify on their behalf to receive benefits.
She listened with a blank stare. He answered matter of factly.
I watched the incompatibles in disbelief. What a scene.
She handed off books as he referenced them, showing lists of beneficiaries from the war. When she corrected him, in which was a black list and which was white, she wore a smirk.
“Black confederate soldiers were given benefits starting in 1923.”
His advice when looking for Confederate history at national and state libraries?
“be a good southerner and make friends” — otherwise you’ll get nothing.
Now it was the woman’s turn to speak.
Miss Theresa, as she was introduced, was an expert on black soldiers serving for the confederacy- as soldiers and “war support”. A woman in full Southern Belle regalia bristled and looked away when she started.
“You never see ‘colored’ on their census records and state records for the purpose of a pension. Census may have had N for negro or I for Indian, but as far as the state was concerned, they were now white men”
The audience asked detailed questions, using the term African American, and then black, and then ‘men of color’ after Theresa did — taking her lead in the awkwardness.
She broke into a passionate recounting and speech on the Confederate Monument protests and her own, prominent role in defending them.
Her confident explanations had an almost-eloquent, simple flow to them — she had recited them many times before. She added comic relief and showed a series of pictures to illustrate points of the lack of black intimidation or Jim Crow-ism around the statues.
“Here’s a black family having a picnic in front of the Robert E. Lee statue. Do they look scared? Uh, No.”
Eric, the other speaker, took a seat and nodded to each point with an awkward grin. His eyes shifted back and forth from Miss Theresa to the audience, gauging their approval.
This is the majority of her speech and presentation on the Confederate Statue issue, including her stories of counter-protesting as a woman of color, calling out and surprising others who were “shipped in”:
The speaker-couple had to leave back to Richmond.
They quickly shuffled out as men rose to shake their hands and thank them.
Back to the books for Eric. Back to the protest sites, back to the defense of the Confederate statues for Miss Theresa.
“We’ve had some fresh air here” a man in a full brim Confederate military hat said after.
“I was hanging off every word”
The meeting concluded with all of the “Sons of Confederate veterans with dues in good standing“ rising to recite another pledge and hear a prayer to which we all were to buy our heads. After some announcements to staff the booth at the upcoming fair, the commander rapped the gavel on the table and adjourned the meeting.
A small line of men formed to shake cans with me, talking about Pennsylvania and their past. The sub commander offered to connect me with a genealogist who could research my Confederate link.
“It doesn’t take much, we find hidden Lakes all the time that qualify new members.”
I stumbled out into the night and shook my head in disbelief, looking back at the neon buzz of Captain Bill’s Seafood. Nothing made sense — and yet it had all really happened. They were all real Americans with real beliefs.
My comfort zone was long gone; my frame of reference shifted, expanded — blown away.
On the highway to Chapel Hill, a wreck and construction slowed us to a crawl. Once at a full stop, I watched a bright, digital billboard scroll. An announcement lit up the highway:
“Baptist Revival this Sunday. Bring back OUR Community“
It was followed by a personal kudos to a local boy, a high school football player who was selected for the “Hard Hit of the Game Award”. It showed him leveling a ball carrier, the opponents body folded in half by the impact.
The recent controversy on brain damage and CTE in American Football caused by such hits rattled through my own head. It had been many years since my “Rudy” nickname in the single year I played, and loved, Little Gritters football as a pre-teen.
My headlights lit up an increasingly lonely country backroad until the turnoff listed for the cabin appeared. The Buick slowly bobbed over the dips and holes of the dirt road, coming to rest in front of a mysterious and tiny house where I would blindly settle into a deep sleep.
The Confederate National Anthem from the meeting’s musicians played in brow-furrowing loops as exhaustion took hold.
The morning showed me just what I needed: a perfect country setting to reset and write, the beauty of the Eastern Carolinas to balance my mind.
My next 2 days were spent with the horses, goats, pig of the farm — hungry and friendly whenever I needed a Mark Twain-esque break from my (mostly) offline writing.