As the United Daughters of the Confederacy gathered in Richmond last week for its annual convention, members were met with some unexpected visitors.
Around four dozen demonstrators from Charlottesville and Richmond, many of them wearing hats, pearls, and white gloves, stood outside the UDC’s mausoleum-like headquarters on the BoulevardNovember 4. They came to accuse the bastion of genteel Southern womanhood of perpetuating white supremacy through the Lost Cause narrative in textbooks, Confederate monuments, and an early alliance with the Ku Klux Klan.
The ladies were scheduled to convene at their headquarters to dedicate a flagpole and plaque, but they canceled the event when they got word that activists—”outside agitators” is how Virginia Flaggers describe them—planned to show up.
Protesters carried signs that read, “Even white people are tired of white supremacy,” “UDC: Take back your statues and your booKKKs,” and “No shrines to white supremacy. Take ‘em down now.”
The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected hundreds of Confederate monuments across the South, including the recently toppled Silent Sam in Chapel Hill and one of a soldier—the “Johnny Reb” statue— in Charlottesville’s Court Square in 1909, which the city and Albemarle jointly funded along with the local chapter, according to the Encyclopedia Virginia. A petition is circulating now to remove that statue.
And they’ve been known to sue when localities try to remove them. The Daughters’ Shreveport, Louisiana, chapter filed suit when the parish tried to remove a statue in front of the courthouse after last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. And the UDC sued Vanderbilt University in 2002 when it wanted to rename a dorm called Confederate Memorial Hall.
“The UDC are the ladies behind the Lost Causelie,” says activist and UVA religious studies professor Jalane Schmidt. They are the ones who “littered the landscape” with hundreds of Confederate statues—and who sue if localities try to remove them. They got textbooks into schools that “poisoned the minds of generations of white Southerners,” she says, and normalized “white supremacy as ‘heritage.’”
Protester and Charlottesvillian Anne Garland Mahler, dressed in a peach dress with hat and white gloves, says, “We’re taking our Southern heritage back.”
The UDC was founded in 1894—almost 30 years after the Civil War had ended. Reconstruction was over and Jim Crow laws were reasserting white supremacy. The organization’s members say its mission is to honor the memory of those who fell during the “War Between the States,” as proponents of the Lost Cause narrative prefer to dub the Civil War, as well as historical, educational, benevolent, and patriotic efforts.
But activists say the group quietly has done more to spread white supremacy than other more flagrantly racist organizations with its recasting the history of the war the South lost into a noble Lost Cause myth. In 1914, one of its members, Laura Martin Rose, aka Mrs. S.E.F. Rose, praised the KKK in her book, The Ku Klux Klan or Invisible Empire. Schmidt brought copies of that tome to return to the UDC.
On Sunday, three Daughters of the Confederacy braved the crowd to check out the demonstrators, and one asked who the organizer was. Another proclaimed, “I’ve never encountered such hatred.”
UDC member Peggy Palmer from South Carolina declared, “It’s a bunch of bullcrap,” and said the demonstrators didn’t know their history.
But she seemed unaware of a 1926 UDC plaque honoring the KKK outside Charlotte, North Carolina, that was reported in a Daily Beast article—”Time to expose the women still celebrating the Confederacy”—that ran the same day, and she asked a reporter and a couple of protesters where the plaque was.
Trey Peters with the Richmond chapter of Democratic Socialists of America talked to Palmer, and he describes the reaction of the Daughters as one of “indignation. They were very unhappy with our demonstration.”
The ladies recently got into a feud with Virginia Humanities’ Encyclopedia Virginia about its entry on the UDC that documents its role in white supremacy. Ginger Stephens, the president of the Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, urged members to write the encyclopedia to correct its “negative article” on the organization.
Editor Brendan Wolfe responded with an article titled “United Daughters of the Confederacy & White Supremacy” to explain how the ladies’ seemingly benevolent work to care for Confederate widows, raise funds for monuments, and sponsor essay contests for white students turned the Lost Cause narrative into a “nostalgic elevation of a society the foundation of which was the violent enslavement of other human beings.”
Under the Lost Cause, the Civil War was not about slavery, but about states’ rights. African Americans wrenched from their families and homeland in chains were portrayed as better off as slaves under well-meaning masters who introduced them to Christianity.
“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,” writes Wolfe.
“That’s white supremacy.”
Stephens did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did four other Daughters of the Confederacy contacted by C-VILLE.
Several of the demonstrators also are descended from Confederates—and they weren’t celebrating that legacy. Richmonder Pat Bjork and her sister, Martha Wright, carried signs noting their great-grandfather was a Confederate doctor. “Honoring Confederates is not ‘history,’ it’s wrong,” says Wright’s sign, and both urged resistance to white supremacy.
Schmidt considered the Daughters’ cancellation of their dedication a success for the demonstrators. “The Lost Cause needs to be lost once and for all.” she says.