In Dixieland will we make our stand?

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 3, 2006

I got back off vacation Thursday and came to the office about noon. I was almost immediately hit with a call from a guy wanting to talk about the annual Confederate History Month proclamation controversy.

I had seen at that it had reared its head again while I was away and was actually in process of writing an editorial about it when the call came.

The caller said basically that it was bad for Suffolk, the controversy, not the proclamation. He intimated it was the News-Herald’s fault for inciting it.

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He said a friend of his from out of town is a re-enactor who is supposed to come to Suffolk during Civil War weekend. He told me the guy had called him and said that because of Suffolk NAACP President Charles Christian’s remarks quoted in the paper, that he was having second thoughts about coming to participate.

“He’s afraid there might be an incident,” he said, “particularly with all the violence that’s been happening in Suffolk. What if someone decides to make trouble and throw a firecracker around one of their horses?”

I didn’t really have a response for him, so he continued.

He went on to tell me that there’s no reason the issue should be controversial because the Civil War was so long ago. He also said that the master-slave relationship was different here in Suffolk than elsewhere in the South.

“The farmers and their farm hands…,” he said before I interrupted him.

“Farm hands?” I asked, barely able to keep from cracking up laughing on the phone. “Are you serious? Some people call them slaves.”

It’s like calling the Jews at Treblinka “day laborers.”

He said that’s really how it was. That when Suffolk fell into Union hands, the slaves, or “farm hands,” refused to join up with the Union soldiers, choosing instead to fight for their “employers.”

Anyway, I think our mayor is right in that he’s in a no-win situation. Whatever he decides to do (and I think he will sign the proclamation), he’s going to make some folks angry, and not unjustifiably in either case. The blacks, for obvious reasons, the same reasons that almost no other state or community will make the proclamation. The proclamation’s supporters will be angry if he does not because they will feel they have been stiffed, had something taken away from them that they already had.

Later in April, the state Sons of Confederate Veterans will be having their convention in Suffolk. I have no evidence to support this claim, but I would bet that their decision to hold the event in Suffolk had more to do with the 2005 proclamation than it did the fact that Suffolk is just such a desirable place to hold a statewide convention.

Personally, I don’t have any problem with April being Confederate Heritage Month in Suffolk because that is our community’s heritage despite the fact that it may carry some unpleasant baggage. That’s as long as it’s done for the right reasons, and luring conventions is not among them.

However, unless a solution is found, this ugliness is going to crop up every year. Perhaps a good solution would be for Suffolk to set April aside as a “Southern Heritage Month,” thereby removing the connotation that some might perceive the word “Confederate” carries and giving equal time and money to activities and events that commemorate the experience of all the people (farmers/masters, farmhands/slaves alike) who lived here at the time. I don’t know, just a thought.

Incidentally, the poll results that ran in the paper today did not print correctly, showing only the percentages of the vote and not the labels. A power failure at our printer last night in Ahoskie, N.C., forced us to have to burn our pages on a disk and drive them down late at night. Something must have gone wrong in the process. The actual answers to the question, “Should the mayor proclaim April Confederate History Month in Suffolk were as follows: 74 percent said “yes,” 23 percent said “no,” and 2 percent were “not sure.”

We’ll rerun those results in Saturday’s paper.