Women’s group behind rebel memorials quietly battles on

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — On a glorious, late-spring day, Maya Little strode across the poplar-lined University of North Carolina quadrangle, past protesters and a uniformed officer. She stepped onto the base of the Confederate soldier statue that has stood there since 1913, and splashed it with a mixture of red ink and her own blood.

The 25-year-old doctoral candidate was sending a message to Chancellor Carol Folt that the monument — nicknamed “Silent Sam” — was an affront to black students like her, “the celebration of an army that fought for our ancestors’ enslavement.” But Little was also speaking to the group responsible for erecting this memorial to “the Lost Cause” — the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

“There is no Silent Sam without black blood, without violence towards black people,” Little said recently as she sat in the statue’s shadow, campus security guards hovering behind nearby trees and columns. “I would say all that blood is on their hands. And it will continue to be until they take a stand — until they … make an effort to take these monuments down and to be a part of actual racial equality, racial justice.”

But the Daughters had already made their position clear months before Little’s protest and arrest. Last summer, in the wake of riots over the proposed removal of a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, the group issued a rare public statement.

“We are grieved that certain hate groups have taken the Confederate flag and other symbols as their own,” President General Patricia M. Bryson wrote following the Aug. 12 clashes that left one woman dead. But while Bryson insisted that the UDC condemns anyone who “promotes racial divisiveness or white supremacy,” she argued that the Confederate ancestors honored by these memorials “were and are Americans.”

She issued a call of her own: “Join us in denouncing hate groups and affirming that Confederate memorial statues and monuments are part of our shared American history and should remain in place.”

Most people might know the UDC as that group of mainly older women who dress in widow’s weeds and gather on Confederate Memorial Day to lay wreaths of boxwood and holly and sing mournful renditions of “Dixie” in honor of the estimated 260,000 Confederate service members who died in the Civil War . Seeing them arrayed in their broad-brimmed hats and red-and-white sashes, it would be easy to dismiss the Daughters as a quaint anachronism.

That would be a mistake.

As memorials have toppled and Confederate place names have vanished in the year since the Charlottesville riots, the Daughters have fought back with lawsuits aimed at stopping the removal of rebel monuments from public spaces.

Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center counts the group among the leading proponents of the “cult of the Lost Cause” — noting it has distributed literature that claims most African-Americans were “ready and willing” to serve slave owners and that northern nullification of Southerners’ rights forced the War Between the States.

“I wouldn’t put them on … our hate group list,” says Beirich. “But they are still perpetuating some of the vilest ideas in American history, and the ones that we’ve worked so hard to get rid of.”

The national UDC — headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, capital of the former Confederate States of America — did not respond to requests for comment.

Founded Sept. 10, 1894, the UDC sprang from women’s “hospital associations, sewing societies and knitting circles” across the South that worked to aid Confederate soldiers, according to its website. The group’s articles of incorporation list five key objectives: “Historical, Benevolent, Educational, Memorial and Patriotic.”

Membership is open to descendants of those who served honorably in the Confederate military or “who gave material aid to the cause.” Applicants cannot use an ancestor who took the oath of allegiance to the United States before April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

After the war, the group offered assistance to Confederate widows and orphans. But its most visible legacy is one of metal and stone.

Members of the South’s most prominent families, the Daughters dedicated themselves to telling what they considered “a truthful history” of the war. So adept were they at raising funds through bazaars and bake sales that when the United Confederate Veterans had trouble funding a memorial to Jefferson Davis in Richmond, the Daughters took over the project. The memorial, with its semicircular colonnade and 67-foot-high column, was dedicated on June 3, 1907 — the 99th anniversary of Davis’ birth.

The SPLC attributes some 450 monuments , markers, buildings and other commemoratives to UDC efforts. The memorials range from modest statues like Silent Sam to the soaring 351-foot concrete obelisk marking the Kentucky birthplace of Davis, the Confederacy’s only president. The vast majority were erected during the late 19th and early 20th centuries — when states were enacting Jim Crow laws meant to disenfranchise blacks — and amid the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

But the Daughters’ influence extended beyond the regional boundaries of the Confederacy. Until last August, when it was dismantled, there was a Confederate memorial fountain in Helena, Montana. A UDC-funded marker also stood on Georges Island in Boston Harbor, until Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, called for its removal. Both are now in storage.

In its heyday around World War I, the UDC was about 100,000 strong, but in a 2000 speech, then-President General June Murray Wells estimated there were around 25,000 members across 700 chapters in 32 states.

“I don’t know if we’ve got one more generation left in it,” says historian Karen L. Cox, author of “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.”

The group, nevertheless, still wields influence.

When Vanderbilt University decided to change the name of Confederate Memorial Hall, the Daughters’ Tennessee Division sued for breach of contract. In 2016, the UDC won a $1.2 million judgment — the current-day value of the $50,000 donation the group made toward construction of the dormitory back in 1935.

Last August, after the San Antonio City Council voted to remove a Confederate soldier monument from Travis Park, the local UDC chapter sued, claiming that it owned not only the monument but the ground beneath it. That case is pending.

Another lawsuit was filed in Louisiana after the Caddo Parish Commission adopted a resolution on Oct. 19 to remove a Confederate monument from its courthouse grounds. UDC’s Shreveport chapter claimed ownership, based on a 1903 vote by the Caddo Parish Police Jury appropriating $1,000 for the monument’s construction and designating that a portion of the courthouse square be reserved for that purpose. A federal judge recently dismissed the case, but the group is raising money for an appeal.

Taxpayers indirectly underwrite the group’s work.

Each year, the Virginia budget awards the state UDC tens of thousands of dollars for the maintenance of Confederate graves — more than $1.6 million since 1996. UNC-Chapel Hill said it’s spent at least $390,000 since the Charlottesville riots for extra security around Silent Sam.

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