Blacks join Confederate group to honor heritage

 
Associated Press Writer

SALEM, Va. (AP) _ At times, the research was painful for William Holland.

Court records, family documents and visits to museums yielded evidence of slaves, the ships that carried them and the tools that restrained them.

Now, Holland's genealogical quest has taken him to a place that many blacks consider just as offensive: the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Holland decided to join the group after it confirmed that his great-great-grandfather, Creed Holland, was a slave horse-drawn wagon driver who was made to serve in the Confederate infantry. Two of William Holland's brothers also have signed up, a third is considering it, and a sister has applied for membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

"Why not?" Holland said of his family's unusual action, calling their ancestor's service _ albeit forced _ a point of immense pride.

"During the whole fiasco with the Civil War a lot of men didn't come home. It was a tough time, and to survive that and come back alive was an accomplishment," he said. "Our grandfather fought with them, so there will be some respect for us and for our family."

SCV officials say minorities are almost certainly a part of the membership in every Southern state chapter, though the exact number is unknown because applicants aren't asked about their race. The only requirement is proof that a direct ancestor served "honorably" in the Confederate Army.

Ben C. Sewell III, executive director of the 31,000-member organization, declined to give an estimate.

"Nobody really knows," Sewell said, speaking from his office in Columbia, Tenn. "Obviously we'd like to have more black or minority members because the fact that we have minorities and welcome them deflects some of the criticism we seem to get, primarily because of the battle flag."

The group, founded in 1896 to honor the Confederate dead, has successfully fought to get the Confederate flag logo on license plates in several states, including Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina. At the same time, it has spent considerable time maintaining that it's possible to defend the Confederacy without being a racist.

An SCV fact sheet says tens of thousands of blacks served in the Confederate Army as laborers, teamsters, cooks and soldiers.

Historians have largely shied away from researching blacks in the Confederate Army and precise numbers are hard to come by, said Gary W. Gallagher, who holds a chair in Civil War history at the University of Virginia.

"You often see these wildly inflated figures of black soldiers in the Confederate Army _ 40,000, 50,000, 60,000 _ the implication being that they carried muskets and fought, and that is simply not true," Gallagher said. He said "a handful" of black men likely fought in the war, and called the number "statistically insignificant."

Gallagher also dismissed the notion that some of those black men supported the Confederacy.

"The overwhelming majority of black Confederate soldiers _ and you can put that in quotation marks _ didn't want to be there but were made to be there," he said.

For many blacks, the notion of joining a group honoring the Confederacy that enslaved their ancestors is incomprehensible.

"I can't even fathom why they would want to be a part of this," said Milton Reid, who founded the Virginia chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "I think there are some things we have done in the past that should die _ and this should die. I'm talking about the whole idea of the Confederacy."

But for Holland and his brothers, joining the SCV _ and paying the $34 annual membership fee _ is a way to honor their ancestors and to better understand what motivates the group.

"I want to learn both sides of it ... and also educate others by what I might learn." said Holland, 33, who lives in Atlanta.

"It's hard. Especially for our side. But you can't always sweep things under the carpet. At some point you just have to sit down and talk about it. That's the best way you can resolve issues, period."

Holland's curiosity was aroused years ago by the stories his father, Sam Holland Sr., told about growing up in a segregated Virginia.

He knew that his great-great grandfather had been a slave on a Franklin County plantation owned by descendants of Thomas Johnson Holland, who bought the 732 acres of land in 1850. There, his family grew tobacco and grain and produced moonshine before it became illegal.

While leafing through Franklin County's court records, William Holland discovered Creed's marriage license from 1868. His research eventually led him to Hazel Holland Davis, whose family owned Creed Holland and who still lives in the family home. She also was researching her ancestors and had unearthed a list of the plantation's slaves who had received Confederate pensions. Creed Holland was among them.

Last month, Davis mentioned Creed Holland's service record to Robert W. "Red" Barbour, the SCV's former state commander. Barbour immediately approached his colleague at Yokohama Tire in Salem, John Wayne Holland, and asked if he was related to William. Upon hearing that the men were brothers, Barbour asked John Holland if he would join the SCV.

"I felt honored," John Holland, 47, said. "It's a good education to be able to get along with people from all walks of life. And history is history, so you go back in time and learn things."

William followed soon after, and a few weeks later, 37-year-old Ben Holland signed the SCV membership papers under Barbour's satisfied gaze.

The brothers said they were surprised to learn their great-great grandfather had served in the Confederate Army. They said they had never been taught about the role of slaves or free blacks in the Civil War.

"A lot of people don't want to learn about it," said Ben Holland, a maintenance supervisor for the American Red Cross in Roanoke. "But you've got to relive history. How are you going to outline your future if you don't know about your past?"

To Ben Holland, the Confederate flag isn't offensive. Many of his school friends displayed it on their cars and outside their western Virginia homes.

"It wasn't no big deal. It wasn't no racist deal. It's heritage," Ben Holland said. "A lot of people say that's hatred. No, it's not; it's heritage."

So far, the brothers say they haven't been criticized for joining the SCV.

"It's their constitutional right and their heritage and they shouldn't be harassed," Barbour said. "And the harassment is going to come from their side, not ours."

William Holland said he eventually hopes to turn his research into a book or documentary about the friendship between the black Hollands and the white Hollands. He also plans to take his genealogical quest to his ancestors' home tribe, the Ibo farming community in Nigeria.

"People think you're a descendant of a slave," he said. "But who were you before that?"