The gate read “Confederate Dead.”
I reached down and lifted the latch. As I did, I peered over my shoulder at my husband and asked, “We can go in, right?”
Surely, there are laws preventing the descendants of African slaves from visiting unmarked Confederate graves. I looked for signs telling me to leave. I looked for a lock that required a special code only segregationists, Ku Klux Klan members and Daughters of the Confederacy knew and had permission to use.
The gate swung open. I did not feel welcome but I needed to stand over those graves.
When I looked up from my brochure of historical markers, eyes wide, and said with macabre interest, “Four hundred unmarked graves of Confederate soldiers …” my husband looked at me with a cocked eyebrow. We’d recently had a bit of a row about white privilege and the use of the Confederate flag in public and private spaces.
My German/Hungarian-American husband and me, the great-granddaughter of a born slave-turned-sharecropper, and our three biracial sons.
Yep, we went there.
The conversation began with my awe at the fact that Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina State Capitol, unclipped the Confederate Battle Flag and, much to my surprise (and a little chagrin), did not burn, tear or cast it to the ground. She respectfully clipped it to her gear and climbed down. She responded to hecklers with Bible verses and prayed the Lord’s Prayer as she was being led away in handcuffs.
I recited the words with her with tears in my eyes.
It was at the end of this telling that my husband chimed in, “What about that sweet old lady from the South who doesn’t know anything about the Confederate flag other than her granddaddy was a good man who had one? Do you ever think about how that must feel for her?”
“No. I don’t.”
My answer was stark. More black-and-white than I usually permit myself to be. Images of bodies hanging, burning, being beaten and destroyed flashed through my mind. I saw teargassed marchers and my people turned away from voter registration. I thought of the poor education, negligent healthcare and lack of legal protections my family has endured and overcome to be where we are today.
“I will never think of her. She’s not thinking about me or my family.”
A few weeks later, our family enjoyed a road trip through Tennessee. I carried a map of attractions and an atlas in the passenger seat with me. When those didn’t find us an adventure, I used the power of tour guide apps to find curiosities off the beaten path. Which is how I found myself standing in what may be the oldest cemetery created exclusively for the burial of Confederate soldiers.
When we arrived, my husband parked on the wrong side of the cemetery and we weren’t sure where to find the newly marked graves. Reminding our children to be respectful, we showed them how to avoid walking across graves and instructed them not to sit, stand or lean on any gravestones. We wandered, remarking in hushed voices over the veterans of different wars and those with the shortest life spans.
I began to notice small marble squares engraved with single letters interrupting the flow of the otherwise orderly rows of graves. These were the formally unmarked graves. Men buried in mass graves that extended based on the ongoing need.
Inside a small enclosure at the other end of the field, the Confederate flag unfurled in the wind and all at once we knew we had found it.
One of the first actions taken to memorialize the space was raising the Confederate National Flag, the battle flag and the flags of Pole and Hardee Army Corps.
The names of the soldiers were painstakingly researched, identified and honored on a heavy monument on the ground. You could see what state they hailed from, their rank in the military and the day they died. All around the central monument were little plaques from neighboring past Confederate states honoring their local fallen heroes. Each plaque sponsored by the Daughters of the Confederacy.
Chapters of the Daughters of the Confederacy from southern states erected plaques to honor the Confederate dead from their home state.
I stepped in and held the gate open for our three children. They trickled in with curiosity. I watched them step into the enclosure fearlessly. The sun caught the glint of golden brown in their skin that wordlessly communicated the one drop of black blood that would have made them slaves.
There was a locked donation box encouraging visitors to contribute generously to help sustain the historical landmark. Ads for local tourist attractions were framed next to it, and I thought it odd to sell ad space in a graveyard.
I spent a lot of time looking for spots on the Underground Railroad we could visit but came up empty. I asked our tour guide at the mansion (see: plantation house) we visited for more information on the slaves, and she didn’t have answers for me. The slave quarters had been sold off and destroyed years ago. Slave artifacts were contained in one small room — the slave entrance. “Research is ongoing,” she said, but it’s a historical afterthought.
I can’t trace my family history. I have no idea who my ancestors are because years of research in the present cannot uncover what years of burying the truth in the past has hidden. I do know about the chamber pots of rich southerners and why they kept pet birds in the house. I know how they bathed, what they ate and in what rooms they held their soirees. I even know how they circulated the air in their mansion to keep the house cool in the sweltering southern summers. I can find the 400 previously unmarked graves of Confederate soldiers, but I can’t visit the graves of my ancestors.
I kept reading the words, “Daughters of the Confederacy.” I kept imagining these daughters — descendants of the men who endeavored to keep my family enslaved. These daughters lost fathers they loved or they welcomed home men feared lost at war. The men who kissed them goodnight and walked them down the aisle were the same men who supported a system of oppression that devastated the culture and well-being of my people for generations.
It is difficult to accept the truth about our heroes.
We will defy logic, reason and ignore facts to protect the version of reality that is the least disruptive to who we want our heroes to be.
I understand the mourning process that comes with watching a hero fall. I have recently mourned the loss of Bill Cosby after years of listening to his comedy albums and watching “The Cosby Show” with my own family. His legacy now includes drugging, raping and silencing women with his power and influence. Many of you have shared the pain of what may feel like a very personal betrayal.
You will survive.
The pain you feel mourning a fallen hero is nothing compared to the pain carried by that hero’s victim.
Whether you’re talking about the ancestors of slaves visiting state buildings with a symbol of their oppression waving above their heads, or sexual assault survivors bravely speaking out against their famous and powerful assailant, your pain does not trump that of the victims.
So to that dear, sweet old lady and anyone else clinging to ignorance and the Confederate flag:
It’s time to admit your hero has fallen.
The sharecropper’s great-granddaughter.