when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

Memorial Day Lesson from a Daughter of the Confederacy

with 9 comments

Oakland Cemetery gate, Hampton, VA, May 22, 2014, Erin photo

Oakland Cemetery gate, Hampton, VA, May 22, 2014, Erin photo

On a run last week, Erin had noticed that Oakland Cemetery, which we’d never visited, had sprouted Confederate flags. We went back to look today, figuring we’d find another memorial to the mythical Southern Way of Life and the Lost Cause.

Instead, we found a 65-year-old white woman named Marquita talking to a younger black woman and a black man amid the headstones. The black woman, angry and crying, was struggling to find her father’s burial site. The man was there to put flowers on his daughter’s grave, now an overgrown patch of weeds, and to find another family member.

Marquita, who recently joined the Daughters of the Confederacy at her brothers’ behest, also has relatives buried at Oakland. Black and white buried together, something we haven’t seen in old, post–Civil War and segregation-era cemeteries around here.

We walked up to the group as Marquita explained to the woman why she couldn’t find her dad’s grave. The cemetery’s owner, Allen Simmons, had buried people every which way—casket atop casket, pointing this way and that, under walkways—with or without permits. Over the years, Simmons and his company, Oakland Estates & Grounds LLC, got hauled into Hampton court and dinged for misdemeanors like “improper upkeep of cemetery.” Found guilty more than a few times, Simmons was fined—$2,500, $1,000, $500—didn’t pay, and kept on disrespecting the dead.

In 2005, Simmons told a reporter from the Daily Press, the local paper, exactly where he stood: “I kind of agree with the city. They have something to complain about,’” he said. ‘But our plan is to abandon the cemetery because we have no funds.’” And abandon it he did; and then he died.

The Commonwealth of Virginia doesn’t want to take responsibility for Oakland, nor does the city of Hampton. There are, however, plots at Oakland that are picture perfect—headstones upright, grass manicured. Families with means take care of these, but only these.

So, like the city’s primarily African American cemeteries, this rare integrated burial ground would be totally consumed by nature if not for a band of volunteers.

Marquita Latta plants flags at upended headstones of black servicement, Oakland Cemetery, Hampton, VA, May 24, 2014

Marquita Latta plants flags at upended headstones of black servicemen, Oakland Cemetery, Hampton, VA, May 24, 2014, BP cell phone photo

Marquita is a voluble woman, today wearing a cowboy hat glittered in blue with white stars to match the stripeless corner of Old Glory. I hope she won’t mind me calling her eccentric, because she is. She’s adopted Oakland, along with a group of people she calls family—Tim, a Son of the Confederacy, who was cutting the grass on his new riding mower; Sarah (I think that was her name), who was doing the same on the old one; and others. When Erin and I arrived, they had all been trying to help the crying woman find her dad’s grave. They stuck a thin metal probe into the earth, hoping to hit stone or anything hard; then they dug a small hole. Nothing.

Marquita peeled off from the group to show me something at the far end of the cemetery, a heap of six headstones—all of them official Veterans Affairs, government–issued ones. African American service members, she told me. She and her comrades had pulled them from the woods but didn’t have the equipment to set them upright. She’d called the VA, she told me, and the local black chapter of the American Legion. More nothing.

As I stood there, this Daughter of the Confederacy—as in an actual member of that national organization—added a few more American flags to the ones she’d planted before we arrived.

Erin overheard Tim talking to the man who came to visit his daughter and find his relative’s grave marker. They didn’t find it—so Tim, the Confederate Son (this according to Marquita), dug a small hole in a spot where the grave might be, just the right size for the African American man to fit a vase of flowers. Tim asked where the daughter was buried and then piloted his mower over to the plot and cleaned it up. The man (he left before I got his name) then planted his second tribute, a bouquet of white flowers.

As we pedaled away, Erin waved goodbye to Tim. He returned the gesture with the flag he was holding, the Confederate stars and bars.

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9 Responses

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  1. I believe every word of this! These odd contradictions of assistance and allegiance describe the legacy of Southern history…good grief. EMM

    milesaway44105

    2014/05/26 at 09:46

    • Thanks for commenting, E.M. We’re learning as we encounter these wonderful contradictions and juxtapositions. The story gets more complex, tangled the more we learn—if we allow it to.

      bxpnyc

      2014/05/26 at 13:44

      • Thank you for your kind story. Not all that wave the confederate flag do it in hate.

        Jay Blair

        2014/06/14 at 07:06

  2. I am the person that has placed the Confederate Flags on the graves of the Confederate Veterans at Oakland. Tim Ballou and I have placed Confederate Cross of Honor on the graves that needed them. Three years ago I took on cutting the sixteen Confederate graves. I have been cutting my relatives graves and a few others since 1988. You would not believe the sights I’ve seen or experienced, there at Oakland by the owners then. I am more than a little miffed by the author’s preconceived ideas that ALL people that fly Confederate Flags are racist. That comes from your stupidity and ignorance. The cliché American by birth, SOUTHERN by the grace of GOD rings true with me. I am proud of my southern roots. Times have changed in this country many times over again. Yes, some of my ancestors did own slaves. Some of my WHITE ancestors were slaves or Indentured servants. If I were racist in my youth, my momma would have beat me many times over. As a Christian, I still am NOT racist. Moses a Jew had a black wife. I do fly every Confederate flag I own every chance I get. I also try my best to educate morons that believe “rebel flag = kill niggers”. Sorry, I have to use such grammar YOU understand. Those words are NOT my words nor my beliefs. We have blacks and whites buried together in Oakland Cemetery, just like the Confederate Army. The ‘United States’ army was NOT integrated until after WWII. “Colored” troops in the Union Army 1861-1865 were used as ‘Cannon Fodder’ for White Union troops. Back to Oakland Cemetery…… We Southern, Christian, Confederate Descendant look after everyone in that graveyard. I cut ‘Trombone’s grave because his momma comes and visit him. It is much more than the City of Hampton or the Commonwealth of Virginia are doing. There are several people trying to keep the cemetery at Oakland as respectable as possible. WE NEED HELP! I thank GOD for my friends Tim, ‘Connie’, Billy Mingee and his wife, Susan, Billy’s sister Maria and the Snidnitzers have worked so hard to make that graveyard honorable. For us true Southerners. The Ten Commandments tell us to honor our father and mother. WE are trying to do what GOD commands!!!!!! A tree fell in the back left section of the cemetery at Oakland. A grave was busted open. We could see the entire body in the grave. Members of the 13th Virginia Mechanized Cavalry, Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp #9 NEVER asked if the body exposed was a black, white or other race. We cut out the tree and made a new vault lid and covered the grave over.

    Jeff Barbour

    2014/06/13 at 18:51

    • I thank everyone who took the time to comment — Langdon, Jay, and Jeff. I hadn’t planned to write a reply because I feel the piece pretty well what I had to say—and my understanding to that point. I changed my mind because I need to respond to some of the specific points Jeff raises. Jeff, please feel free to response to my response.

      Your comment reflects something that troubles me: The fact that some very vocal and active people who embrace and wave the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia/Confederate army flag — people who you say you know — do espouse beliefs that negate the humanity of black folks. I have met some of these people in my nearly 50 years on the planet and nearly 30 years as a journalist.

      That particular flag was resurrected by the Klan in the late 1930s, deployed by Jim Crow-supporting Dixiecrats at their 1948 convention, and embraced by segregationists who were trying to crush the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, often violently.

      I’m sure that many of those who waved that flag during attacks on blacks and whites did not represent those white Southerners who saw it as symbol of pride and ancestry. I don’t believe these violent people stood for this group, but I think it’s necessary for those who support the flying of that flag to understand how it was used — and then to understand how that use made it a symbol of hate and violence to those being attacked and discriminated against.

      How we see the flag is a matter or perception and perspective. I am trying to understand the tradition and heritage point of view, and people like Marquita are helping me with that. But to disregard and disrespect the views of those who were on the receiving end of brutality and discrimination by men, women, and children waving that flag I think, is to remain blind to their humanity and their history.

      bxpnyc

      2014/06/15 at 23:17

  3. You had the pleasure of meeting my dear family member, Marquita. She is passionate about family history and family legacy. Anyone, regardless of Union or Confederacy ties in their past could learn a great deal about history from her. I’m glad Erin and yourself had the opportunity to meet her!

    Langdon's Hope

    2014/06/14 at 07:52

  4. Well to clarify our efforts at Oakland we all do it out of love and respect. I started getting involved in researching the War Between the States (Civil War) when my life long friend Jay Blair and a group of Sons Of Confederate Veterans participated at my fathers funeral in Oakland Cemetery in 2011. There were Confederate Flags,Men dressed in uniform, a musket firing salute and even a guitar playing Dixie. You see my father was not a religious man by any count. Of course a preacher spoke and prayers were said but I could see my father grumbling. then the Confederate flags were raised, the muskets fired 3 volleys and then we all sang Dixie. At that moment I could picture my father watching from the heavens and smiling saying: “Now that’s the way I wanted to go”. Since that moment I took up the fight for the “Cause” of the South. You see my Grandfather was known as the “Old Confederate”, I only knew him in my younger days before he passed away,1972 the year to be exact. He stayed mostly on an old cot on the front porch of my Grandmothers house over which hung A pair of crossed Confederate Battle flags and a toy musket. This is because he had known his Grandfathers and his Great Uncle whom All served for the Confederate States of America.One Grandfather and his twin brother served in the Infantry and the other in Artillery. Granpa Ballou entered the War at age 40 and served as an Assistant Surgeon in the Va.53rd Regiment do to his having owned a sawmill in Wilson County. Granpa Ballou is quoted as saying: ” Although I do not believe in the reasons for this War, I must support Virginia my home”. Oddly enough this is the same thing Robert E. Lee said when he turned down command of the Union Army when Virginia seceded. To study and know the atrocities that took place between 1861-1865 I find it hard to side with either point of view. Yes slavery was an issue but was not the cause. Economics, money and control were causes. Please take time to research an event before you take sides. To say this War was merely caused by slavery simplifies the the underlying causes. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, sound familiar? Some people are proud of their heritage and should be. As a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans I could not agree more with your views on the use of the “Battle Flag” to display Southern Pride. The Confederate States of America only had three official national flags. PERIOD. The Battle flag was just that for battle. As a AngloWhite-Southern man all I can say is in the year 2014 I personally will judge a man by the content of his character and not the color of his skin. If you wanna know more meet me at Oakland Cemetery where my mother and father are buried as well as others and I’m sure you will learn a lot more about history. The only way to stop racism is to take the myths out and replace them with truths. DEO VIDINCI

    Tim Ballou

    2014/06/20 at 19:40

  5. Thank you for bringing light to these very generous and loving volunteers!
    I grew up in the PNW in an area known for its neonazi camps and KKK supporters. I awoke more than once to a burning cross, dead animal or the confederate flag terrorizing all who lived in the group home in which I resided. So imagine my dismay when I discovered the man I was to marry (going on ten years ago now) proudly waved the symbol I grew up knowing only as one of hate. I’m not a “gentile southern lady” therefore I was very vocal with my distaste towards the SCV, UDC, KKK and any other organization that has used this flag a a symbol. My fiancé took me to one of his camp meetings to prove to me there was no hate or malice behind his beloved flag, with me expecting nothing but racism to be at the forefront. I was greeted graciously, even offered coffee and cake – I guess one could say I got my first taste of “Southern Hospitality”. When the meeting was called to order, an older gentleman got up to speak telling the story his ancestor and his fate upon the battlefield, while the audience applauded at the mans recount of a story pieced together from 150 years ago. The next call to business delt with the defacing of national monuments and the efforts as well as the money it would take to restore them. The cleanup effort of not just Oaklawn cemetery but several surrounding cemeteries also was discussed, volunteers rallied and the meeting was dismissed with the men singing Dixie at the top of their lungs. I giggled as most of them (my husband included) couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but their love for their heritage was what rang through the air louder than their sour notes. I went to several events and reenactments over the next year to make sure Jay nor his SCV brethren weren’t just putting on a show for my benefit. Without fail, over the ten years I have interacted with the UDC or SCV, topics have always been to preserve, protect or provide in one capasity or another – several even making valiant attempts to located my own family line for me after discovering I was an orphan. I have never made mention of this to any of the SCV or UDC members that I know personally, Marquita and Tim just being a couple, therefore I know that they do not hold their opinions or tongues in fear of offending me. I have to check myself when I giggle at the “rebel yells” and “Dixie” sound off or when I lovingly tease my husband about his “redneck rebel friends” and remember that these individuals are giving of themselves and their time to make their home a better and more knowledgable place.
    As for how I view the Confederate flag today? Well, I just simply realized that the KKK, neonazi and other hate groups also use the American and Christian flags as symbols too. Therefore since I’m not going to quit being a Christian or an American anytime soon, my husband has every right to honor his heritage too.

    tblair73

    2014/06/20 at 20:14

  6. Wow. Your piece was amazing, and the replies to your piece mind-blowing. I’m speechless (even though I had something to say in your Reply section).

    jethag

    2014/07/23 at 00:02


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