I did not personally know the beautiful souls who were massacred while gathered in prayer with a stranger at Mother Emanuel on June 17, 2015, but I can’t stop weeping. In part, my tears are the product of troubled introspection. I am a proud southerner with deep roots. My father has always been puzzled by my “ancestor worship.” My husband and children mock my addiction to ancestry.com with quips like, “did you know Mom is 99.9% Anglo-Saxon and cousin of the Queen?” But I can’t help but feel pride when I find another link on my family tree confirming my forefathers’ presence south of the Mason-Dixon line before secession.
It started with my maternal grandfather, Neville Penn Lewis. “Papa” Lewis was a most staunch conservative in his lifetime, but that meant he was a Reagan Republican. He preferred C-Span to Fox, facts to rhetoric, Louis Rukeyser to Walter Cronkite, and always with p-nuts and a cold beer. Papa was a consummate Virginia gentleman and I delighted in his tales of family lore. When I first took my then-fiancee, Adam, to meet Papa, he insisted on a day-long tour of homesteads and grave sites from Alta-Vista to Hurt, Grit (yes, Grit) to Stoneville, N.C., an antebellum town whose unofficial motto (according to Papa’s ball cap) is “It ain’t big, but it’s growing!” Papa’s family settled in this beautiful part of the world in the early 18th century. Southern by the Grace of God indeed.
We visited the grave of Papa’s own grandfather, Robert Haywood Lewis, who was wounded at Gettysburg and later captured at Petersburg on his 25th birthday, and is today buried on a small plot in the middle of a farm owned by an African American family. Papa had befriended the family and they selflessly maintain the grave. Papa saw nothing odd about the arrangement because “people are people,” like the folks at the gas station where he would buy us a hotdog lunch. I remember asking Papa if his family had owned slaves. He looked at me like I had three heads and sharply rebuked, “No.” I now knew this was not true, as I am sure he did, given the generations of tobacco farms he had just taken me to see.
I am lucky that I have been able to trace literally thousands of ancestors on my family tree. If you have ever done this type of research, you know that military service records are easy to find, in no small part due to the Daughters of the Revolution and the Daughters of the Confederacy. Apparently, I have only one male ancestor who was of age at the time of the Civil War who did not fight for the Confederacy — that is because a slave revolt had not yet sent him fleeing from his coffee plantation in Martinique on a cargo ship bound for Charleston. I love the old pictures of handsome young men in their grey uniforms. Not so long ago I shared a picture of my great-great-great uncle, Washington Bozeman, on social media. Bozeman was known as the “Little Reb” because he was short in stature and was still wearing his uniform at the Confederate Home in 1914. Fact is, he probably couldn’t afford any other clothes.
Why do I take pride in this Confederate Heritage? I am a liberal-minded progressive! But like so many, I long to belong in my community, a community which the Gullah describe as being composed of “come-yahs” and “bin-yahs.” Everyone wants to be a “bin-ya,” especially in a town like Charleston, which is crawling with rich newcomers and tourists. I am not a 6th generation Charlestonian, nor am I a rich newcomer, so I am left clinging to my strong southern roots, which are proved by my ancestors’ service to the south in what many call the “Late Unpleasantness.”
Until today, I have worn my Confederate heritage as a badge of honor. I am NOT a racist, though I admit I have been more tolerant of racists in my lifetime than I am proud to admit. But what would Papa say about all of this? About flying the Confederate Flag at the South Carolina State House? About defining myself as a daughter of the Confederacy? I can’t help but think he would be hurt and disappointed. He didn’t take me to Robert Haywood Lewis’s grave because he was a Confederate, he took me there because he was family. But why would this proud son of Virginia refuse to glorify his southern heritage? Because it did not define his experience. That was defined by the long-lingering effects of reconstruction in the rural south, by the Great Depression, by World War I, by World War II, and his own rise to success in a textile mill—where people were just people.
I never heard Papa say a disparaging word about another soul until I asked him about the KKK. I had gone to boarding school in Connecticut and, suffice it to say, the history of America in the 19th century taught there was a bit different than what I had learned at home in South Carolina. While I was there, Papa would send me care packages consisting of Moon Pies and R.C. Cola to ensure I didn’t lose my southern soul, but when I innocently asked Papa if he had known anyone in the KKK, he quickly retorted, “those people are trash.” He was a gentleman and I know now that I had insulted him by even asking the question. But he was right, there is no lower form of being human than a racist.
I will no longer show pride in Confederate service of those on my family tree — not because I am not proud of them for doing what they thought was right in a time that I will never be able to fully comprehend — but because I don’t want anyone to ever misinterpret my love of family, my love of the south, my desire to be a “bin-yah” for anything remotely associated with racism or hate. I will disassociate myself from the Confederate flag that has come to symbolize something horrible and hurtful. Instead, I will better document my ancestors who helped bring independence to America and to show my southern pride, I will fly the Liberty banner of Col. Moultrie, a banner that better represents the whole of my community, including my brothers and sisters at Mother Emanuel.