By Ryan Bonner
To hear Grayson Jennings tell it, Hanover County is attempting to sweep Civil War history under the rug and stifle First Amendment rights.
County officials, however, are quick to downplay any controversy after a Hanover Parks and Recreation Department advisory committee told the organizers of "Dixie Days" it wanted the name of the Civil War reenactment to be changed.
Although the county did not receive any formal complaints about the event, the advisory committee recommended the name change in an attempt to diffuse any controversy stemming from an article that appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, said Brad Ashley, director of the Parks and Recreation Department.
That article brought up a few parent concerns about students attending "Dixie Days" as a field trip.
The second edition of the event was held at Pole Green Park in May and with the county onboard as a co-sponsor, it is protocol to review the event and attempt to make it better in the future, Ashley said.
Jennings, the commander of the Cold Harbor Guards Camp division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans of Virginia, has come out strong against a name change and said he’d rather hold the event on private property or outside the county instead of ceding to the advisory committee.
"They are treating us like red-headed stepchildren and trying to run us out by being so damn politically correct," Jennings said. "It makes me sick."
The 18-person committee is made up of county residents and government/school officials. Its Aug. 4 review of "Dixie Days" found few issues with the actual event and Ashley said it would be welcomed back with open arms if the name were changed. The committee offered three suggestions for a new event name: "Blue and Gray Days," "Civil War Days" or "Battle of Bethesda Church."
But Jennings wants no part of it and said he believes the county would continue to chip away at the event that drew 10,000 people this year if his unit agreed to a name change. "If you change the name this year, next year it will be the uniform, then the flag," Jennings said. "They really want the battle flag out of there."
What no can really seem to figure out, on either side, is what exactly makes the word "Dixie" such a taboo. Its American Heritage Dictionary entry says it’s a region of the South, "usually comprising the states that joined the Confederacy during the Civil War."
"Is New England offensive?" Jennings asked. "If Dixie is offensive, then so is New England."
County Supervisor John Gordon Jr. said the organizers have the right to select any name they choose but if the county is going to remain a co-sponsor of event, he encouraged a name change.
"I won’t say the name is offensive because I’m not sure that’s the case, but the name rightly or wrongly does suggest a celebration of a time and series of events that may not be appropriate for celebration," Gordon said.
Gordon has no interest in just forgetting about the past, however, and he said he believes all those who served in the U.S. military should be honored, regardless of whether the conflict was popular.
"I have a firm commitment to acknowledging the true history of Hanover, this state and this nation," Gordon said.
What started as a simple suggestion by an advisory committee to calm the waves has evolved into a full-blown circus, with much of the drama being played out in the media.
Jennings has been invited to address the advisory committee during its Sept. 26 meeting, but the battle lines have already been drawn. Jennings has shown no inkling of backing down and although Ashley said the committee has not made a final decision and only serves in an advisory capacity, a recent e-mail to Jennings suggests "Dixie Days" may be looking for a new home next year.
The committee "has clearly stated that the name of the event must change to be held in a public park in Hanover County – nonnegotiable," Ashley wrote. "If you do not plan to change the name of the event, I recommend you find an alternative site to proceed with your plans for 2006."
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