To love or lynch: Blacks embrace Confederate flag

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Your Aug. 22 article, “Rebel flag sparks art exhibit flap,” about artist John Sims’ plans to “lynch” a Confederate battle flag from a 13-foot gallows in the center of the national military shrine of the Western Hemisphere’s bloodiest battle at Gettysburg, presents an opportunity for healthy debate.

This article pointed out two views on the flag — the one held by Mr. Sims, that the flag “unsettled him” because of the fact that the flag has been “embraced by hate groups.” (So has the Stars and Stripes, but that’s another story.) The other view, held by former Asheville, N.C., NAACP president H.K. Edgerton, is that the flag “warmed him, reminded him of his homeland, of his beloved South.” Mr. Sims is from the North; Mr. Edgerton is from the South. Both men are African-Americans.

Certainly, Mr. Sims should be allowed to express his political views in any nonviolent way he deems appropriate — but his public display of associating the Confederate battle flag with death, though tasteless, is not original. History tells us of another African-American who took a Confederate battle flag to a graveyard to associate it with death. His simple act also made a statement those many years ago. However, this African-American’s statement was not political, nor was it hateful, nor was it for self-serving public display. Rather, it was an act of admiration and love, and it was done in quiet solitude.

After General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was mortally wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863, Virginia returned the Confederate Joshua to his last home in Lexington, Va., to be buried. When Union General Hunter’s army marched through Lexington, some local citizens were careful to remove and hide a Confederate flag that flew over Jackson’s grave. (Yankees wouldn’t even let the dead rest in peace.) When a local woman visited Jackson’s grave to place some flowers during the federal occupation, she noticed a tiny Confederate flag upon the grave, “with a familiar hymn pinned to it”:

“Upon inquiry she found that a colored boy, who had belonged to Jackson’s Sunday-school, had procured the flag, gotten some one to copy a stanza of a favorite hymn which Jackson had taught him, and had gone in the night to plant the flag on the grave of his loved teacher.”

Jackson, of course, is known for his now famous “Colored Sunday School” at the Lexington Presbyterian Church. This young boy, in a most poignant manner, wanted to express his love and respect for his teacher, his teacher’s faith, and for his teacher’s flag. Many Lexington blacks were well aware that Jackson took great personal risk and was flirting with criminal prosecution for being suspected of illegally teaching his black students to read and write. They did not forget his loyalty to them. Evidence of their mutual respect is still readily available. When visiting Jackson’s grave today, you will observe a beautiful life-size bronze statue over Jackson’s final resting place. The statue was the labor of the noted artist Edward Valentine. It is one of the best-known tourist attractions in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. What is not as well known is the source of some of the funding for this historic treasure:

“The first contribution made to the fund which has placed at his grave the beautiful statue, which is the work of Edward Valentine, and is a veritable Stonewall Jackson in bronze, was made by the negro Baptist Church at Lexington, Va., whose pastor had been a pupil at the negro Sunday school.”

There were countless other expressions of thankfulness for Jackson’s efforts with Lexington blacks. One such example is the memorial window in the African-American 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Va. Today one can visit this church and see a beautiful stained-glass window that memorializes Jackson’s last words. The window depicts a pastoral Shenandoah Valley scene with a cabin, soldiers and military tents beside a river with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background. At the bottom of the scene are the words: “In Memory of Stonewall Jackson — Let Us Cross Over the River and Rest in the Shade of the Trees.”

Dr. Lylburn Liggins Downing, the church’s pastor and founder, commissioned and installed the window in 1906. Both of Downing’s parents had been converts of Jackson’s black Sunday school and Downing had attended the same Sunday school class after Jackson’s death. Growing up, Downing had often spoken of the fact that he received the call to ministry as a result of the instruction he had received in the class started by Jackson. The window was Dr. Downing’s way of honoring Jackson. The City of Lexington, in turn, honored Downing by naming an elementary school after him.

One more example of African-Americans’ admiration for Jackson is the honor granted to Jim Lewis, Jackson’s black body servant and cook during the war. It was Lewis who was chosen to hold the reigns and lead Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrell, during the general’s funeral procession in Lexington. This was quite an honor.

Lynching a Confederate battle flag at the nation’s most famous battlefield may be a great way to get publicity and make a political statement, albeit an ignorant one. But for those willing to study history, the truth can be a liberating experience. The truth can also heal old wounds — wounds that will only be reopened by a gallows. Mr. Edgerton knows this truth; apparently, Mr. Sims does not.

Copyright © York Daily Record 2004