One of the plaques affixed to Silent Sam’s pedestal at UNC-Chapel Hill states that the statue was sponsored by the North Carolina division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) originated in 1894 but still exists today as a nonprofit organization, with membership defined by blood lineage.
Appearing benign as genteel Southern ladies in white gloves, UDC members claim to honor their ancestry through “Historical, Benevolent, Educational, Memorial and Patriotic” activities. However, they also promote a distorted narrative of American history, one that was crafted to justify their ancestors’ participation in the losing side of a war that was fought, in large, to preserve the institution of slavery. The UDC has both created and inherited a multi-generational burden of spreading this propagandized version of Southern heritage. Its leaders have long since shed the responsibility of teaching with historical accuracy when the truth isn’t self-serving, and there has been little public accountability until now.
Regarding the recent wave of controversy surrounding Confederate monuments, the UDC has essentially silenced its members from public comment. In August, the president of the national UDC organization, Ms. Patricia Bryson, issued a statement in which she was “saddened that some people find anything connected with the Confederacy to be offensive” and concluded that monuments “should remain in place.” In North Carolina, the state UDC group has been quiet, as division president Ms. Peggy Johnson essentially ordered a media blackout among her members.
The UDC takes great pride in steering clear of contention, claiming “[their] members are the ones who, like [their] statues, have stayed quietly in the background, never engaging in public controversy.” This stance appears conveniently contrary to the statement that Ms. Johnson wrote in her April newsletter: “We must stand together. We need to speak up. We need not to hide. We are each empowered to speak for ourselves – but remember that we are ladies!”
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Regardless, the UDC certainly has the right to operate in obscurity, but its monuments are intruding into our public spaces. Its leaders must be held accountable for the messages of white supremacy enshrined in its Confederate statues. It is not too late for them to take the high road and break their cycle of denial. UDC members could honor their ancestors while also engaging in an honest and truthful exploration of the South’s role in slavery and oppression. They could take action to dismantle visible remnants of racial intimidation, and they could listen to the voices of those with a southern heritage drenched in racial violence and hate. Or, as they have chosen, they could continue to weave a mantle of redemptive propaganda, spinning the ‘heritage not hate’ ideology into their pursuit of ancestral absolution.
For its own sake, the UDC should learn how to engage in difficult public discourse if its descendants are to flourish in a diverse world. But under current leadership, it won’t. It will remain silent in the backdrop of social change, resisting the rise of multiculturalism and 21st century perspectives. Unless its leaders awaken to the damage they are inflicting as they cling to contrived historical narratives and ignore the stain of racism on the American landscape, the UDC may truly be a lost cause.
Heather Redding lives in Orange County.