How the Old South is felt in the Northwest | KUOW News and Information

How the Old South is felt in the Northwest

Aug 17, 2017

We originally aired this story on January 19, 2007. Statues commemorating Confederate figures have been the source of tension, protests and removal this last week – making an argument that can feel far from the Northwest top of mind.

On a frosty afternoon, I went with Marjorie Ann Reeves to the 1926 Confederate soldier monument in Lakeview Cemetery on Seattle's Capitol Hill. Just the sight of it was enough to bring her to tears.

"Probably because my whole line of family have always fought in wars. Our men have always gone off to wars and it just, it — you’re honoring other people and it just — very proud. I'm sorry," she explained.

Her great grandfathers fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Reeves is from Alabama. She's the author of a book on the Seattle chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. She moved to Seattle a few years ago after a divorce, for a new life.

One day, Reeves visited the historic Lakeview Cemetery. She found the UDC monument to Confederate veterans had a fresh wreath.

"And then I knew that there was activity, so I had to keep looking," she said.

Eventually she found — and joined — the Seattle chapter of UDC.

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The chapter ladies meet a few times a year. They have lunch. They plan trips to restore gravesites and recruit new members. They organize scholarship contests.

One afternoon they gathered in a retirement home in Bellevue to hear a lecture by historian Junius Rochester on the political ups and downs of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The ladies listened politely as Rochester told them things they may already know: Davis was imprisoned after the war and quietly became a martyr.

Rochester winds up to Davis' funeral: "Get this: 200,000 people came to his funeral in Richmond. Think about that — 1889, 200,000 people came to honor a man who represented a losing side in an American Civil War."

The UDC ladies nod with surprise and understanding. They know about political ups and downs. In 1939 the Seattle UDC had a powerful member: May Avery Wilkins. She was able to get markers placed on Highway 99 to honor Jefferson Davis. The justification: Davis sent surveyors out here for wagon and rail roads before the Civil War, when he was U.S. Secretary of War.

But as U.S. Senator from Mississippi, Davis also said things like this: "The condition of slavery with us is, in a word, nothing but the form of civil government instituted for a class of people not fit to govern themselves. We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority."

UDC chapter historian Marjorie Reeves said there's no way to defend slavery. But she makes allowance for Davis’ views as part of the times and said Davis should be recognized for the good things he did. She thinks highway markers are a fitting tribute.

'This is something that I prefer not to have in the community.'

Vernon Stoner was city manager in Vancouver, Washington, from 1996 to 2000. Stoner couldn't help but laugh when he saw a photo of the Jefferson Davis highway marker that stood by Highway 99 in Vancouver for almost 60 years.

"Well, it says 'Jefferson Davis Highway number 99, erected by the Washington Division.' Yep. There it is. Well, it's somewhere," Stoner laughed. "It's not there anymore."

He first saw the marker when he was walking around Vancouver in the early days of his job.

"I think I said, Oh my God. It was a shocker because it was just by accident that I came up on it. Just felt a little sick to my stomach from the standpoint of what it represented, but also just felt that, hey, you know, I'm the city manager in this community, and felt that this is something that I prefer not to have in the community."

So he had it removed. Quietly.

Stoner was relieved. Because when he sees words like "Confederacy" and "Jefferson Davis," memories come flooding back of his grandfather with tears streaming down his face, telling dark stories about his life as a slave.

Stoner said he's had private conversations with some women of the UDC and that they’ve seemed to understand his position. Still, women of the UDC write letters to ask that the highway marker be put back on display.

"Well, 200 years ago, I probably would have had a problem with that because I would have been part of the situation," said Patricia McRae, a black woman living in Seattle. "Today I can't hate them. In that case I would hate all the white people in town."

McRae owns Pat's Catering and Cakes, baking from scratch "good old-fashioned Southern cakes."

So guess who the UDC called in 2005 when they needed a Southern cake for their centennial?

"I made a huge cake with Robert E. Lee's picture on it. He loved lemon-orange cake. So I made ‘em a delicious lemon-orange butter cake with lemon-orange buttercream," she said.

McRae saw it as an opportunity to learn more about Lee, someone she hadn't known much about before.

She has kind feelings toward the women of the Seattle UDC, and not because they give her business. She said she's busy enough.

As for the whole Civil War thing, she talked that over with her daughter.

"She said, 'Well, they’re on the other side. We won. Why be mad at them?' I enjoy the Confederacy daughters. They are wonderful women. I'm glad I met them and I’m glad I’m learning more about them. I might not understand everything they do and I might not agree with them, but I will continue to make them their cakes as long as they ask me," she said.

Slavery is inexcusable, but fighting for your beliefs brings honor, even if your cause brings suffering to others.

The UDC isn’t powerful like it once was in Seattle. Its fortunes turned in the Civil Rights era. Membership in the 1960s dwindled from 38 down to 15.

Roberta Brudevold has been with the chapter for decades. She's the one member today who didn't move here from the South; her Confederate great-grandfather did a long time ago. What she has in common with her Southern friends is a belief that their great-grandfathers fought with honor.

"I believe the Southern people felt it was more a matter of states' rights. We look at it differently now. And I think it was good the emancipation took place. It had to come. But there was a whole different viewpoint at that time," Brudevold said.

Many Confederate soldiers were poor and didn't own slaves themselves. Reeves and Brudevold said that was the case for their great-grandfathers.

For many who descend from slaves, that distinction is trivial. It attempts to excuse the inexcusable. Reeves insisted: Slavery is inexcusable, but fighting for your beliefs brings honor, even if your cause brings suffering to others.

"I feel sorry for everybody that lived back that time because it was just very hard for everybody. I can't just say, 'Only these people deserve pity.' We all do,” she said. “But, you know, some people are ashamed. I don’t know why. It’s just, we all think differently."

Reporter: "Why are you not ashamed?"

"I can't think of any reason why I should be," Reeves answered.

Reeves said reasons people fought in the Civil War were as numerous as the soldiers.

One could say the same of feelings about the Civil War today, or opinions on a catchy tune that’s fallen out of favor, like “Dixieland.”

The song’s starts:

“Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,

“Old times there are not forgotten.

“Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land!”

Reeves: "In the right tempo, it's a beautiful song. It's a nice old song."

McRae: "That's not my song. That’s not how I feel."

Brudevold: "They are forgotten. It's our past."

Stoner: "It's hurtful. Because you think about how people were treated."

Officials in Vancouver said the Jefferson Davis highway marker is in storage and that no plans exist to put it back on display.

The Confederate monument on Seattle's Capitol Hill still stands, but its bronze letters have been stolen. It's a bare hunk of stone right now. The UDC is paying about $5,000 to replace the bronze with masonry.

The Seattle UDC chapter celebrated 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee in 2007 with the Sons of Confederate Veterans — and one of Pat's cakes.

Phyllis Fletcher previously worked as a reporter for KUOW and is now the managing editor of the Northwest News Network, a partner news organization with KUOW.