United Daughters of the Confederacy & White Supremacy

Published:August 30, 2018 by Brendan Wolfe

Two days ago, Ginger R. Stephens, the president of the Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, wrote a letter to her “ladies.” “It has been brought to my attention,” she told them, “that Encyclopedia Virginia has a negative article on the UDC.” She explained that she had talked to the encyclopedia’s staff—it was me—and “they don’t seem to be aware of how much harm that article is doing and how critical it is that it be corrected.”

The problem, she wrote, is this: “The majority of the article is about the UDC and Race. The UDC’s Objectives are not included, and there is no mention of any of the UDC’s work.”

Stephens then encouraged her members to write us and request a correction. And they did!

I am requesting a revision of this article to remove the negative information and remarks regarding the United Daughters of the Confederacy …

The article is very biased and paints a negative portrait of the organization. The section on the UDC and Race is longer than the rest of the article, giving that too much emphasis, while ignoring the work of the UDC …

It is truly amazing at all the crap you can read on line. The UDC has nothing in common with the KKK, Neo-Nazi or the white supremacists. Guess you need to go after the ladies now because nothing else has worked. Good old smear campaign!

We’re happy to receive feedback on our entries. We encourage readers to point out factual inaccuracies and we try to respond as quickly as we can. Just in the past few weeks, we’ve made corrections to entries on Cephas Davis, regarding the details of a state election; on John Carlyle, regarding where he is buried; and on J. D. Harris, regarding the date of his death. The latter two came as a result of reader emails.

What we have with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, however, is different. While they argue that we are being factually inaccurate, they are not actually able to identify any factual inaccuracies. Instead, their objections are philosophical, and at this point it would be more efficient to answer them here than to continue to write each complaining member individually.

At the crux of this philosophical disagreement, I think, is the phrase “white supremacy.” The UDC members object to any association of these words with their organization, past or present. To them it puts the UDC in league with the KKK and neo-Nazis, etc. (And sometimes it did!) But what the entry argues is that the traditional efforts of the UDC—raising funds for Confederate monuments, sponsoring Memorial Day parades, caring for indigent Confederate widows, sponsoring essay contests and fellowships for white southern students, and maintaining Confederate museums and relic collections—have been undertaken in the context of the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War.

What do we mean by the Lost Cause? Long the prevailing ideology of not only the UDC but of the United Confederate Veterans, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and much of the postwar elite white culture, it follows several basic precepts:

  • the Confederacy didn’t start the war;
  • slavery had nothing to do with it;
  • enslaved people were generally well-treated and faithful to their masters;
  • the United States only won because of its industry and manpower and a willingness to sacrifice the lives of its soldiers; and
  • Confederate soldiers were uniquely heroic and Confederate women uniquely honorable.

So what does this have to do with white supremacy? All of these things add up to a nostalgic elevation of a society the foundation of which was the violent enslavement of other human beings. And this “elevation” was not by accident. It came at precisely the moment when those formerly enslaved people were competing with their former enslavers for political power. By asserting that slavery was not that bad and that white people had always acted honorably and in the best interests of blacks, the Lost Cause became an argument for a society in which white people belonged at the top of the order and blacks at the bottom.

That’s white supremacy.

What does this look like in practice? A Virginia history textbook from around the time of UDC’s founding, written by a Virginia woman, described enslaved people this way: “Generally speaking, the negroes proved a harmless and affectionate race, easily governed, and happy in their condition.”

Fifty-some years later, another Virginia textbook, co-written by a woman, congratulates those black people who did not join John Brown at Harper’s Ferry: “It is a great tribute to the honor of the Negro race that he was unable to carry out his plot, for only a few Negroes joined him.”*

Another textbook, published in 1957 and used in Virginia schools for the next three decades, asserts, “A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes.”**

When the UDC and other such organizations sponsored essay contests, this is the sort of history that was being promoted. It was not history that acknowledged the actual lives of actual African Americans. In fact, it actively erased them.

That’s white supremacy.

There’s more to it than textbooks, of course. There are memorials. You may have read about Silent Sam, the Confederate statue at the University of North Carolina that was recently torn down by protesters. It was a gift, in 1913, of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and one of the featured speakers at its unveiling was Julian Carr, a local industrialist and Confederate veteran. Here’s what he said at the event about the meaning of that occasion:

The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South—When “the bottom rail was on top” all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States—Praise God.

I trust I may be pardoned for one allusion, howbeit it is rather personal. One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.

When Carr says “the bottom rail was on top,” he means that black people had briefly achieved a modicum of social and political power after the Civil War. Then, using his own cruelty as an example, he suggests that violence is, and has always been, the preferred remedy. (After all, it had worked well in Virginia.) He even notes that the current generation might need a good reminder of that. Hence, this statue.***

That’s white supremacy.

So were efforts by veterans’ and memorial groups to censor textbooks that attempted to advance a different understanding of slavery. So was Birth of a Nation, a film that cast black legislators as corrupt, ignorant, and less than human. So was the violence of slavery brought into the post-slavery world: the lynching of John Henry James just outside of Charlottesville, for instance. A witness wrote her husband two days later that “it behooves the Virginia men to be on their guard at all times” for “black devils” like James, “whom we have been taxed to educate, & give the rights of a white man.” They are not fit for such freedom, she wrote; they will only rape your women.****

That’s white supremacy, but so is a refusal to engage this history. To understand it only as an attack on you or your organization rather than as an attempt to widen the narrative to include those who have otherwise been silenced by the textbooks, the monuments, and the ropes.

If you think the examples above are cherry-picked, then you ought to read more widely in the sources. These were mainstream, acceptable attitudes in their day, and an attempt to acknowledge and understand them is crucial for dealing with the issues of today. (See this and this.)

It is central to the mission of Virginia Humanities—of which Encyclopedia Virginia is but one program—to tell Virginia stories in a way that does justice to the full experience of all people. We do this not to divide but precisely the opposite: to share in a history that belongs to all of us. I have told Ms. Stephens and the United Daughters of the Confederacy that we would like to update the entry to include more information about her organization during the past several decades. In the meantime, if the UDC is interested in grappling with this difficult history and joining us in our effort to tell a broader story, we would welcome them as partners.

* We have a copy of A History of Virginia for Boys and Girls by John W. Wayland and Rose M. E. MacDonald here in the office. It’s the 1948 version, and this quotation is on page 277. You can read the 1920 edition here.

** This is from Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis Butler Simkins, Spotswood Hunnicutt Jones, and Sidman P. Poole. It was published in 1957 and used in Virginia schools as late as the 1980s. We also have a copy in the office. This quotation is from page 369.

*** Or the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, the unveiling of which was preceded by Klan marches.

**** Letter from Florence A. Bishop to Jonathan A. Bishop, July 14, 1898 (Beltrone & Company/University of Virginia Special Collections). We’ll have a transcription up on our site soon.

IMAGE: A Washington state chapter of the UDC, October 1925