The shootings this past week at the Emanuel American Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina sparked my reflection about “southern heritage” and what the Confederate flag means in my family.
First, I can’t imagine what it must have been like in AME churches across the country today. When we visit Mississippi each year, we attend services at the Greater Solomon Chapel AME Church in Cleveland, Mississippi on our first full day in the state. I can’t imagine what Pastor Ruby Davis must have said in her sermon this morning.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about my own interactions with the Confederate battle flag, the one that flies next to the statehouse in South Carolina. My granddad‘s family immigrated to southwest Virginia in 1765, and moved through east Tennessee to Carter and Lawrence counties in eastern Kentucky in the early 1800’s (see here). He (Curtis Nipp) had a number of great uncles who fought in the Civil War. When I was small, he would recount for me the stories they told him about the war, and he would describe to me the scars that the survivors bore from the war (mainly missing arms and legs).
Our entire family was Union, and all these great uncles were infantry soldiers in Kentucky regiments of the Union army. They were all dead way before I came along, but I still remember visiting a little cemetery on a hill west of Grayson, Kentucky every Decoration Day to clear away the brush and decorate their graves. In fact, my granddad was a lifelong Republican simply because the Republican Party was the party of the Union and Abraham Lincoln. As a result I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the Civil War.
The school system in my hometown of Ashland, Kentucky used to take all elementary school kids (in the 5th grade as I remember) on a field trip to the state capital in Frankfort. Because of my fascination with history, I thought this trip was the best thing I had ever experienced to then. In the gift shop at the state capital, I remember seeing a little Confederate battle flag on sale. It was one of two souvenirs that I bought that day. The other was a little book titled The Civil War Handbook by William H. Price (the entire book is available online at gutenberg.org) published in 1961 on the centennial of the start of the Civil War. I still have that book (I’m looking at it right now as I type). Amazon sells an updated version of it here for $22.95. Mine has a price of $1.00 stamped on the cover.
When I got home, I told my grandparents what I had seen in Frankfort, and I showed them the two souvenirs I bought. I thought they would be very interested, since my granddad had a Springfield rifle that one of his great uncles had used in the Civil War over the mantle.
When he saw the little Confederate battle flag I bought, Granddad was livid. That’s the only time I ever remember him being angry with me. He took the flag from me, put it in a coffee can on the porch and burned it.
This 10-year-old boy got a life lesson in what symbols mean to people, particularly that symbol. Up to that moment, I knew that my family had fought in the Civil War, but I didn’t understand much else. At that moment with my granddad in a rage and watching that little flag burn, I got a glimpse for the first time why my family fought in the Civil War. Before then, that flag just meant “Civil War stuff” to me, but to him it was the symbol of everything his family had fought against and some had died to defeat. It meant traitors and slavery, and it meant people killing his relations.
Anyone who argues that the Civil War was not about slavery can only justify that argument by ignoring the reasons that Confederate political leaders spelled out in 1861 in their official documents declaring secession from the United States of America. Alabama, Texas and Virginia explicitly identified themselves as “slave-holding” states in their official Ordinances of Secession. Moreover, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas identified attacks on the institution of slavery as their primary motivation for secession in their Declaration of Causes. Tariffs, taxes and states rights were mentioned in none of them.
There are many things to celebrate about “southern heritage”, but there are also many things to condemn.
Thus, I strongly support the many calls to do away with the Confederate battle flag in places of honor everywhere – and the stars and bars and any other Confederate flag for that matter. It offends me as the descendant of Union soldiers who fought and some of whom died to preserve this nation and end slavery.
However, the offense I take from it is trivial compared to those whose ancestors were the slave “property” of those who rallied to those flags. I can only imagine what it is like to look at a symbol that celebrates those who fought to maintain your ancestors in slavery.