Another clash over Virginia’s dark past is brewing in the digital sphere. Encyclopedia Virginia’s entry on the United Daughters of the Confederacy has drawn criticism from the group for explicitly noting their efforts to preserve white supremacy.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy, formed in Nashville, Tennessee in 1894 to promote and memorialize the Confederacy, condemned the entry, which was written in 2010. In a letter to members on Aug. 28, Ginger R. Stephens, president of the Virginia division, asked members to send requests for the article to be corrected, mitigating any “harm that article is doing” by giving “too much emphasis” on race.
Stephens wrote, “The UDC’s Objectives [sic] are not included, and there is no mention of any of the UDC’s work.”
However, a look through the entry in the Virginia Encyclopedia suggests otherwise. The article notes the group’s efforts in the 20th century to promote an ahistorical view of the South before secession and the Civil War itself; a “Lost Cause” narrative where enslaved blacks happily served kind white masters until constitutional disputes forced noble southerners into a costly Civil War of northern aggression.
It’s a perspective the Daughters, over the decades since the Civil War, are heavily invested in spreading through various means: flagging textbooks that accurately portrayed history, erecting monuments to Confederate leaders, creating a generation of lawmakers, judges, and state’s rights advocates who stood against efforts to integrate and elevate the black community. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the organization was responsible for over 800 monuments and symbols to the Confederacy on public land throughout the United States.
This mythology the UDC helped promote, known as the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War, is what Virginia Encyclopedia’s editor, Brendan Wolfe, cited when explaining the focus of the encyclopedia entry. “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,” wrote Wolfe in a response to Stephens’ letter on Encyclopedia Virginia’s blog.
“That’s white supremacy.”
Furthermore, Wolfe calls “a refusal to engage” with the harm the organization has done to marginalized groups itself an act of white supremacy, casting the snippets of feedback from Daughters members that opens Wolfe’s blog post in a different light.
Since his entry went public, the Daughters have sealed off access to their website, and removed the PDF of the letter Stephens issued.
This new development comes as the role of Confederate monuments in Virginia and public spaces throughout the U.S. continues to generate controversy and backlash. In Richmond alone, neo-Confederate groups have announced plans for another rally in support of the statues lining Monument Avenue on September 15, following four separate gatherings throughout 2018 that cost the city of Richmond over half a million dollars in police expenses. Although defenders describe the statues as endangered, at least one new Confederate monument is planned for construction next year. Sally Louisa Tompkins, a Richmond hospital administrator and captain in the Confederate Army, will join Chief Cockacoeske and Maggie L. Walker as part of the Virginia Women’s Monument, set to be completed in 2019.
Meanwhile, the United Daughters of the Confederacy continue their advocacy efforts. Most recently, they’ve condemned the destruction of the ‘Silent Sam’ memorial on the campus of the University of North Carolina and attempting to intervene in markers to African-American history set to be placed near one of the group’s Confederate monuments in Williamson County, Tennessee.
The Encyclopedia Virginia has made no indication that it plans to remove the contentious material, but has offered to update the article with more recent information, if any is available.
“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,” wrote Wolfe.