You may not have known that a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy still exists in Virginia, but they do, and their headquarters in Richmond was set on fire early Sunday morning in the midst of protests over police violence and the death of George Floyd.
The group has argued that the South’s secession during the Civil War was honorable and based on “state’s rights,” instead of a bloody war fought to keep enslaving Black people.
“The UDC has a long and inglorious history of misrepresenting the past,” VCU Prof. Gregory Smithers said in an interview with Dogwood. “In general, I’d describe it as preserving a history guided by self-deceit and willed ignorance.”
In addition to misrepresenting history, Smithers said the UDC also contributed to the systemic racism that Black people face today, working to “advance white supremacy” and supporting “Jim Crow segregation laws.”
George Mason University Prof. Jane Turner Censer agreed, saying the group inaccurately portrayed the North as “brutally” attacking the South and acting “vindictively” because they gave Black people rights during the Reconstruction era.
Formed in 1894, the group established well over 100 chapters in its first 10 years. Censer estimated that at its height the UDC had 100,000 members. The women wrote histories, raised money for Confederate monuments, and developed a children’s division to control the contents of history textbooks.
“They made states adopt textbooks that give this rosy view of slavery, and push the idea that the South was was totally justified in seceding,” Censer said.
In one example, the group called on the University of Florida to fire a professor in 1911, because he did not teach their version of history. “They were very active in this and really it was censorship,” Censer said.
The UDC also played a pivotal role in glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group that has killed innumerable Americans. Members of the UDC often defended members of the Klan, arguing that the KKK was simply a group of white southerners protecting their rights.
“During the Reconstruction years, one UDC member called for children to learn the ‘truth’ about the Klan, declaring that teachers should instruct children ‘not to be ashamed’ of the Klan and to learn about their ‘high mission,’” Smithers said.
In recent years, members of the UDC have made it their mission to keep Confederate monuments up throughout Virginia. Loudoun County Board Chair Phyllis J. Randall said members of the UDC came to a board meeting in 2007 to request that a Confederate soldier statue in front of the county courthouse be cleaned.
The women attended the meeting in full antebellum dresses.
“What I thought at the time was, can we imagine if I had walked into the county board room wearing the garb and chains of my ancestors?” Randall said.
Smithers said the UDC’s role in the modern era should only be as a source of records to “reveal the depths of white supremacy and racism in the American South.”
Censer said even then, the organization can be slow to let historians into their archives and tend to make studying their work complicated.
“I’m sorry their building was attacked but I do think that the organization has not been a force for good in America,” she said.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy could not be reached for comment.