During the 1920s, T.C. Williams's father purchased some
lots surrounding the family's modest home in Suffolk, Virginia. The youngest of
eight children, Williams, now 82, is a true Suffolkian -- a term longtime
residents of this city, sandwiched between the James River and the North Carolina
border, use with pride. But Williams, who is black, did not grow up in downtown
Suffolk. Outside the city, past where the pavement ended, past where the lighting
dimmed, and then another 15 minutes by foot -- that was where the Williams
family lived. "Suffolk to me -- now that I'm able to compare -- was like
Johannesburg," he says. His community was like Soweto.
As a youngster, he played on the lots his father had purchased,
kicking around the scores of metallic gray balls he found in a ditch on the
property. It was only in the early 1980s that Williams -- who had been snatched
from Suffolk by the draft, worked in New York City for the U.S. Postal Service,
and then returned to his hometown for good in 1977 -- found himself in a
Richmond museum, about an hour northwest of Suffolk, staring at a collection of
gray Civil War bullets that looked awfully familiar. "Had I not seen those pieces
in this museum, the thought would never have occurred to me," he says. Williams
had spent part of his childhood unwittingly at play in a ditch full of bullets
once used by soldiers.
The Civil War is as inescapable in Suffolk today as it was in the rural lots
of Williams's youth -- and this April more than ever. The city of 67,000
residents -- about half black, half white -- recently became the latest of
about a dozen Virginia municipalities to recognize April as Confederate History
and Heritage Month, acting at the request of the local chapter of the Sons of
Confederate Veterans (SCV), known as Tom Smith Camp #1702. What makes Suffolk
unusual is that the city's mayor, Curtis Milteer -- whose prerogative it is to
approve or reject such proclamations -- is black.
No one was more dismayed by Milteer's decision to sign the proclamation than
Charles Christian, president of Suffolk's NAACP chapter. The morning after the
story broke in the Suffolk News-Herald, Milteer paid a visit to Christian
at home to try to assuage concerns about what he had done. Milteer told Christian
that while considering the proclamation, he had spent time researching at a local
public library and decided that slavery had not been the defining issue of the
Civil War. The NAACP leader was unimpressed. "That was just too little too late,"
he says of the mayor's house call. Christian's manner of complaint -- he
believes the mayor's decision will detract from Suffolk's sense of "togetherness"
-- is understated and polite. But it belies his profound disappointment over
what has taken place in his hometown.
Two days later came a Wednesday city council meeting that was, by Suffolk
standards, boisterous. Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans showed up in
force and their leaders, one by one, rose to praise Milteer for his decision.
Katherine Hamilton, a descendant of local black Confederate soldier Jason Boone,
rose to defend the mayor's choice. Christian spoke against the proclamation.
By the time I arrived in town on Sunday, Suffolk seemed to have officially
reverted to sleepy. The front page of the News-Herald was dominated by a
picture of a four-year-old catching a fish and a feature story about two local
officers riding their bikes in the Police Unity Tour. Suffolkians I interviewed
said the debate over Confederate History Month had been contentious but that the
controversy was blowing over -- or would blow over just as soon as people like
me were no longer interested, as one longtime resident congenially explained.
Main Street was quiet on Sunday afternoon. Though Suffolk's population is
sizeable, it is spread over 430 square miles, giving the city a small-town feel.
Downtown consists of about five gentrifying blocks. The Nansemond River cuts to
one side of town. It isn't much of a river, but its shores technically count as a
waterfront, and there are plans to construct a Hilton alongside it. East of Main
Street lies a massive Planters peanut factory. The historically black
neighborhood surrounding the factory is depressing, decrepit, and still largely
Two long blocks from Main Street -- just on the other side of well-kept
Cedar Hill Cemetery -- is the Dining Room, a favorite restaurant of the Sons of
Confederate Veterans. The restaurant, like the politics of the SCV members who
frequent it, lies just on the outskirts of Suffolk's center. I arranged to meet
members of the group for dinner on a Tuesday night. "Bring your gun," one
townsperson advised me jovially before I set off. Another rolled her eyes
nervously and said I would meet some "interesting" folks.
I arrived at the Dining Room 10 minutes early, expecting to be the first
there. Instead, the former commander of the Tom Smith Camp, F. Lee Hart III,
greeted me at the door. Already seated at a table in the corner were two other
SCV members and one of their wives, a member of the United Daughters of the
Confederacy. They wasted no time. Clearly distrustful of my motives for visiting
Suffolk, they nevertheless launched into stories of their recent triumphs, such
as last year's restoration of Suffolk's Confederate memorial, which their
organization sponsored. These tales morphed seamlessly into stories of southern
battlefield valor circa 1865.
But if the boundary between past and present seems unusually porous for the
Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group's agenda focuses squarely on the here and
now. "Throughout our history, I would say the organization has always functioned
in a quiet, passive manner," says Bill Richardson, the group's commander. But no
longer. "We're taking a much stronger role in defending the good name of the
Confederate soldier," he explains. What that means in practical terms is that the
Sons of Confederate Veterans is increasingly determined to push its view that the
South was right during the "second American revolution" -- the preferred term
for the Civil War in this company -- at every opportunity and without apology.
So when members learned in March that Virginia Governor Mark Warner had declined
to renew the long-standing tradition of naming April Confederate History Month,
they took matters into their own hands, submitting a proclamation for Mayor
"I didn't in my mind have any reservations that it would not be signed,"
Richardson says. Of Milteer, Hart says, "He has a lot of common sense. He's a
good man; he's a Suffolk man." Later in the dinner Hart explains further: "The
problem is not with black people, the problem is with white liberals who are
intimidated by the NAACP," he says. "If we just had to deal with the blacks
alone, I don't think we'd have any problem." And yet Hart does not hesitate to
criticize black leaders for worrying about issues such as Confederate History
Month while their people are "on the streets killing each other for drugs."
Suffolk's Sons of Confederate Veterans have been here before --
as recently as a year ago, when they paid to have an enormous Confederate flag
professionally restored and placed in Riddick's Folly, a historic home in
downtown Suffolk that operates as a sort of museum of the town's history. But the
building receives money from the city, and the board of Riddick's Folly initially
rejected the flag, citing insensitivity to black residents. Ultimately, the Sons
of Confederate Veterans scored a mixed victory: They persuaded the board to
reverse itself and accept the gift, but the framed flag proved too big to fit
through the doorway of the third-floor room it was to occupy. The six-foot by
six-foot flag rested in the building's third-floor hallway for weeks. Defeat was
eventually conceded, and the flag was relocated to a local establishment called
Southern Gun Works. The episode was a dry run for the controversy over
Confederate History Month.
About halfway through dinner, Hart asks if I have heard of the Battle
of New Market, which took place on May 15, 1864. General John Breckenridge of the
Confederacy, ordered to save the Shenandoah Valley from Union forces, found
himself short of manpower and reluctantly called up cadets from the Virginia
Military Institute. At a crucial moment in the battle, the cadets, mostly
teenagers, charged and held their position, swinging momentum to the Confederacy.
Ten were killed. The valley was saved. At this point in the story, Hart's voice
begins to crack. His eyes well with tears. He apologizes: He can't go on. It is
the second time during our dinner that Hart has become choked up over Civil War
battles. He is wearing a Confederate tie. He sports a Confederate wristwatch. And
now he is verklempt.
Fortunately, there is a lot to be said about the crimes of cruel fate against
the southern people, and my other dinner companions are more than happy to pick
up where Hart leaves off. For if the Sons of Confederate Veterans have an
unusually vivid sense of history, they have an equally well-developed persecution
complex. "We are now the ones in the minority and finding our civil rights
trampled," Richardson says. Like members of any oppressed group, they are
determined to reclaim their identity. "I had to go to the doctor about a year
ago, and you had to put your race on a little form," he recalls with the evident
pride of someone who has beaten the system at its own game. "And I put 'Southern
In fact, the Sons of Confederate Veterans are fond of turning the rhetoric of
the relativist left in on itself -- and using it skillfully to decidedly
nonliberal ends. "In this era of mutual respect and social healing," Richardson
asks, "how can everyone come together to be homogenous when the only people who
can come together to celebrate their history are those people?" (He is referring
to blacks.) "We all have a unique heritage, and we have more similarities than we
do differences," Fred Taylor, the group's lieutenant commander, says of
southerners. "Our strength is our diversity," Richardson adds. It was an argument
the group had offered to great effect at the council meeting six nights before.
By all indications, it was this deployment of multiculturalism gone awry that
convinced Mayor Milteer to sign the proclamation. The mayor did not respond to
messages left at his home. A woman at city hall told me he was no longer
answering questions about this issue. But before he stopped talking to the press,
Milteer said something very revealing to the News-Herald: "We have
rendered proclamations for other groups," he said. "It's a matter of recognizing
and respecting everyone's heritage, even if it is not the same as our own."
This argument appears to have carried weight with some in Suffolk -- where
many citizens, particularly whites, seem to make little distinction between
remembering history and celebrating it. "Anybody who has read the proclamation in
its entirety and fully understands what it means -- I don't see how they could
have problems," says Robin Rountree, speaking as a private citizen though she is
also the director of Riddick's Folly. "It's part of our history. You can't deny
But you don't, of course, have to honor it -- and that is where councilman
Thomas Woodward draws the line. Woodward, who is white, incurred the ire of the
Sons of Confederate Veterans at the Wednesday council meeting by publicly stating
his opposition to Milteer's decision. As a result, he's a little self-conscious
about his newfound stature as a local champion of civil rights -- and he spends
most of our interview trying to correct it. "I am no one's liberal," he says. "I
have never voted for a Democrat in my entire life and don't intend to do so."
Twice he tells me -- out of nowhere -- how much he hates Morris Dees of the
Southern Poverty Law Center. I tell him my magazine is center-left; he introduces
me to the city manager as a socialist. "I'm no supporter of Black History Month,"
he reminds me. Robert E. Lee is one of his heroes -- and so on.
But beyond the good-ol'-boy bluster, there is something admirable about
Woodward's decision to draw a distinction that other white Suffolkians seem
unwilling to invoke. "I think people should remember history," he says, "but not
worship history." Then he adds, "At the end of the war, Lee told his troops, 'Go
home.' And that should have been the end of it."
T.C. Williams agrees. He doesn't think much of Mayor Milteer -- "Little man
doing a big job," he says bluntly -- but his attitude toward the Sons of
Confederate Veterans is more one of puzzlement than anything else. He tells me he
will never understand their pseudoreligious obsession with the battles and
defeats of centuries gone by. "You lost it and you lost big," he says of the war
whose legacy has proven even more durable than the discarded bullets of his
innocent youth. "Now let's get on with it."
But not for Suffolk, and not anytime soon if the Sons of Confederate Veterans
have their way. They are on the move -- sponsoring essay contests about the
Confederacy in public schools, dressing up in Confederate garb, and telling
"romantic stories of Jeb Stuart," among other tales, to local schoolchildren.
Like all good missionaries, they are even taking their message abroad; they claim
their Confederate stickers have been distributed as far away as Russia and the
Ukraine. They are busily rewriting Suffolk's understanding of the Civil War,
explaining that the "Underground Railroad was kind of a publicity stunt" and that
the conflict was a theological struggle between the Christian forces of good and
the secular forces of evil, rather than a fight over slavery. "We are no longer
in an attitude to remain passive about our heritage," says Richardson of what his
group is doing. They are bullish on the future -- which is to say the past.
Having won themselves a month in Suffolk, they are aiming for the year.