I’ve seen some recent commentary elsewhere about the balance between activism and scholarship, commentary that I think easy to question if not to dismiss almost altogether. But it’s always a good idea to check how one’s personal feelings and sentiments play into one’s scholarship and commentary. Now that the Confederate Battle Flag no longer flies on the grounds of the South Carolina state house, let me share some personal observations.
I came to South Carolina in 1987 to teach at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I had never set foot in the state until I arrived for my job interview. I recall going to Charleston that spring to speak at a conference on southern history. My session on Ulysses S. Grant and the South during Reconstruction took place in the Confederate museum on the campus of the Citadel, where some members of the audience met my message with stone silence. I also recall touring Charleston on what happened to be April 9, entering what folks told me was an old slave market (then an antique mall) and deciding to buy a medal commemorating Appomattox as my little protest (I later learned that someone in Charleston had confused the City Market with the Old Slave Mart).
But that was Charleston. Over the next three years I had reason to visit Columbia on several occasions. I toured the state house and the grounds outside; I looked at the stars on the side of that building marking where shells from Sherman’s artillery hit; I stopped at monuments to Wade Hampton (dressed, not as governor, but as Confederate general) and Confederate women. I saw the statue of Washington that was damaged during Columbia’s capture by US troops.
None of that really bothered me. After all, I had gone to a university that had a Confederate cemetery adjoining my first year dorm in a town that boasted statues of Lee and Jackson downtown, and I had worked for three years in the middle of a Civil War battlefield (look where the University of Tennessee is located sometime). I was perfectly willing to accept what I saw as part of history.
Only one thing rubbed me the wrong way. Atop the state house dome flew three flags: the US flag, the state flag, and the Confederate navy jack/Army of Tennessee banner. Given Hampton’s rather feeble defense of the city (and the role his orders played in setting it ablaze), one could chuckle at its Civil War context. But all one really needed to know is that the flag had gone up in 1961 as a message about resistance to the federal government’s policies concerning civil rights to realize that it meant something far more than honoring heritage over a century old … although, in its way, it honored a different sort of heritage.
To me, it was in part a heritage of hostility towards outsiders, including someone like me. I could understand how other people looked at it, and how some people would say that it honored Confederate heritage while others could say that it was a defiant reminder of white supremacy and racism … and both could be right, because there was more than a little overlap. Given that I also knew about what happened in South Carolina during Reconstruction, I wondered if the same flag flew at Hamburg, where in 1876 Confederate veterans acted on their understanding of their heritage and duty. Some people honor those terrorists known as the Red Shirts to this very day.
In short, I didn’t like what I saw, and I understood that it was South Carolina’s way of flipping the bird at many people, including the state’s own African American population, as well as outsiders like me.
I hasten to add that I didn’t think all white South Carolinians (or white southerners) felt the same way. Living in Virginia and Tennessee had helped me appreciate that the South was a fairly diverse place, a point reinforced by travels to New Orleans and Atlanta and Nashville and Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky. That said, South Carolinians were different from other southerners, even as they were different from each other, as life in the piedmont and upcountry demonstrated (to say nothing of the difference between black and white).
Still, that flag sent a message, and it was not a message I cared for.
During my three years at Wofford I seldom ran into people who romanticized the Confederacy or who baited Yankees such as myself. The students, especially those who warmed up to me, were fairly open-minded and willing to be challenged. The KAs named me faculty member of the month, and if you know anything about the KAs, you know that they would not have done so had they thought I was an unreasonable hostile force. One student gave me a handsome engraving of “The Last Meeting” (Lee and Jackson at Chancellorsville) which still hangs at my house (others, deciding to commemorate Grant, gave me bottles filled with various substances). The only time I ever snapped at a student at Wofford was when I sensed a student wasn’t giving his best effort and believed he could slip by because he was an African American athlete. He later thanked me for not patronizing him, observing that many white “liberal” faculty, many of whom were southern by origin and education, reacted to him with a combination of fear, guilt, and condescension.
Most faculty members were just as civil … although here and there I ran into a few people who knew how to use the prejudices of others to their own advantage (and who may have shared those prejudices). As I did not teach the Civil War course at Wofford (and it was a Civil War course, not a course covering the coming, conduct, and consequences of the war), one might argue that these issues rarely came to the fore. But everyone knew my research interests, and they also knew that the college had made special provisions in the library to house the documentary editing project that became Sherman’s Civil War.
I left Wofford in 1990 to accept a position at Arizona State University. I can’t say that I left Wofford because of feeling uncomfortable because of such issues, although I was aware that the racial attitudes of a few white faculty members shaped my experience there. After all, there was only one African-American member of the faculty, an instructor in the English department; and, while African-American students asked me to attend meetings where they made their feelings and perspectives known, I can’t say that they found me more than a helpful adviser (by the way, so did the College Republicans, who embraced me because I wanted to make sure that discussions about political issues got a fair hearing). But I must admit that it was difficult to talk to other people about South Carolina without hearing about that flag in Columbia, and knowing full well that they had a point, even if they then abused it in stereotyping the people I knew.
A decade after my departure, I heard that after long and acrimonious debate the flag came down off the dome, only to appear on the grounds. At first that seemed a reasonable compromise, until I learned how some white South Carolinians celebrated its placement as an act of defiance (which has nothing to do with honoring heritage). Apparently it’s important to honor Confederate heritage … but not anyone else’s heritage. The very people who said it was important to be civil to Confederate heritage advocates openly questioned black history month and women’s history month (women ought to have 27 weeks to be truly fair, but I digress). Lately I’ve seen the very people who “honor” Confederate heritage use flag-raisings as acts of mean-spirited defiance, and they have mocked the very heritage they pretend to honor by acting like fools and expressing their hatred of other folks. Oh, I’m sure you’ll tell me those folks aren’t typical, but the fact is that Confederate heritage advocates who don’t share these views or exhibit such behavior have failed to defend what they believe in from those who do act in such a way as to disgrace the entire enterprise of Confederate heritage. We’ll see that again this July 18 in Columbia when the KKK arrives in town. Trust me.
And so, in the end, I have no problem with the flag coming down, because it sends a message that I believe is a positive one about South Carolina, just as I believe that the flag being up sent a negative message to people like me (and, I’m quite sure, an even more negative message to other people). What happens next interests me more. We’ll soon see whether this was simply a symbolic act or the beginning of something more profound and worthwhile.
So yes, I’m glad it’s down. May it never go back up.