Confederates to hold service at Downtown church

Joey Matthews | 11/7/2014, 4:17 p.m.
The executive director of the Historic Richmond Foundation is defending the organization’s decision to rent the historic church it owns …
This photo was taken on Feb. 25, 2012, during a Sons of Confederate Veterans rally on Monument Avenue in Richmond. Photo by Jerome Reid

The executive director of the Historic Richmond Foundation is defending the organization’s decision to rent the historic church it owns and maintains in Downtown to a Richmond-based national group that glorifies the Confederacy.

The nonprofit foundation, whose mission is to preserve, promote and protect historic places for the economic benefit and cultural enrichment of Richmond, is renting Monumental Church to the United Daughters of the Confederacy for the group’s annual memorial service for members who have died during the past year.

The UDC was founded in 1894 by female descendants of Confederate veterans and purports to honor their memory and heritage. Others see them as a not-so-well masked purveyors of hate.

“Though they are genteel and have good middle class decorum, the United Daughters of the Confederacy advocate white racist history,” said Edward H. Sebesta of Luzerne, Pa., who has worked to stop churches in Richmond and around the country from hosting the Confederate group.

Mr. Sebesta’s research has been published in peer-reviewed academic journals and university presses on neo-Confederate groups since 1998.

He told the Free Press the memorial service may sound innocent enough, but “it lends the prestige of the (church) institution to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. You wouldn’t let the Ku Klux Klan rent that space.

“And they are memorializing people that worked to glorify the Confederacy. They aren’t memorializing Confederates, but they are glorifying neo-Confederates.”

The UDC memorial service is scheduled to start 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9, at the church at 1224 E. Broad St. in Downtown. The service is a part of the UDC’s national convention scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 6, through Monday, Nov. 10, at the Omni Richmond Hotel in Downtown.

UDC officials did not respond to several Free Press requests for comment on the memorial service. According to the Confederate group’s website, flowers used for the service “should be placed later on a monument or marker dedicated to the Confederate dead.”

Mary Jane Hogue, the Historic Richmond Foundation’s executive director, told the Free Press her group has a welcome sign on the church door to all groups that want to rent the space.

“The building (church) is a national treasure. It’s open to everyone,” she said. “We rent it for any kind of public function.”

Monumental Church is vacant except when events are held there. It was built in 1814 to memorialize the 72 people, including Virginia Gov. George W. Smith, who died when the Richmond Theater burned at the site in 1811. It first served as an Episcopal Church until 1865 and later as a chapel for the adjacent Medical College of Virginia.

Ms. Hogue was asked why the foundation would rent the church to a group that celebrates the Confederacy, which fought to maintain the enslavement of millions of people of African descent.

“Why would we discriminate?” Ms. Hogue asked. “I don’t know much about their organization. All kinds of groups use it. We’re in the business of renting. We’re not in the business of politics.”

Mr. Sebesta said groups such as the UDC portray themselves as mainstream while disguising their hateful intent.

He cited two recent examples:

• In an article in a December 2012 issue of the United Daughters of Confederacy magazine, they defend the notorious Black Codes of Reconstruction designed to maintain white supremacy after the end of the Civil War. The article claimed the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed citizenship and equal protection under the law to African-Americans after the Civil War, was a misguided mistake; strongly implied that newly freed African-American men were a rapist threat to white women; and that “newly liberated Negroes were not prepared for their freedom.”

• In a November 2007 issue of UDC magazine, a pro-Ku Klux Klan book, “Southern by the Grace of God,” is recommended as a “treasure” to be given to children.

“The UDC may not fit the stereotype of a racist group, and because of this, they are more pernicious,” Mr. Sebesta said.

In 2000, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups across the country, wrote, “Although the UDC promotes an image of genteel Southern ladies, its publications tell a different story.” The SPLC also pointed to an event at which the “UDC’s president, Mrs. Williams Wells, shared the podium with white supremacist lawyer Kirk Lyons.”

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Downtown had hosted the UDC memorial service eight times since 1994 and agreed to host it again this year. But the church later rescinded the invitation, according to the church’s rector, the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, after the UDC failed to agree to a meeting with congregation members to discuss the group’s views and how they impact other people.

“I’ve been here six years and questions grew among some of the people at St. Paul’s wondering if hosting that was consistent with who we are at St. Paul’s,” Rev. Adams-Riley said. “We were wrestling with that.”

He said UDC officials initially agreed to meet with congregants, but then pulled out of the meeting. He said he then informed them they’d have to hold the memorial service elsewhere.

“The UDC says they’re an organization that is about honoring heritage and maintaining a memory of history,” Rev. Adams-Riley said.

“At the same time, there are other things that come to mind for some people, such as slavery and all the hardship and suffering and all the consequences that have followed over the generations.”