In 1926, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument to the Ku Klux Klan in a town just outside Charlotte, North Carolina. Though the marker itself seems to have been lost to time—or more precisely, to the urbanization and shrubbery that has sprouted around it—proof of its existence endures thanks to the UDC’s own meticulous record-keeping. In 1941, a local division of the group published North Carolina’s Confederate Monuments and Memorials, a book that handily compiles various tributes to the Confederacy from around the state, many of them the UDC’s own handiwork. Writer Greg Huffman got his hands on a first pressing, in which he noted the monument’s inscription:
“In commemoration of the ‘Ku Klux Klan’ during the Reconstruction period following the ‘War Between the States,’ this marker is placed on their assembly ground. Erected by the Dodson-Ramseur chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. 1926.”
Since the UDC’s founding in 1894, the elite white Southern ladies’ group has dedicated itself to erecting Confederate monuments around the country and, in more recent years, quietly ensuring those markers remain standing. They have been the single most effective propagandists for the Lost Cause myth, an alternative-fact-ridden version of history that denies slavery as the central cause of the Civil War while also insisting that slavery was a mutually beneficial institution—a win-win for both enslavers and the enslaved. UDC textbooks have taught generations of Southern children that the Confederacy—a nation whose founders were unequivocal about its cornerstone being white superiority and black enslavement—was a valiant and valorous cause.
Despite its influence, the UDC is rarely name-checked in national discussions about Confederate monuments overtly celebrating white supremacy. And the group remains active, with its national conference—an explosion of antebellum dresses and nostalgia for slavery—happening this weekend in Virginia.
It’s time they were given the credit they deserve.
“Their name is on all their monuments, but maybe because those plaques are rusty and faded people don’t realize the UDC is still a functioning organization,” says Heather Redding, an organizer with Hillsborough Progressives Taking Action, a North Carolina chapter of Indivisible. For the past two years, HPTA and other local anti-racist organizations have protested the North Carolina UDC chapter’s annual gathering in Durham.
“They meet regularly, they collect dues, they give scholarships, and they're a nonprofit that gets tax breaks,” says Redding. “Basically, they're white supremacists hiding in plain sight. And that’s particularly frustrating, because they parade around like an innocent historical group that just does community service.”
According to the SPLC, the UDC sponsored more than 450 monuments, buildings, plaques and other tributes to the Confederacy. Though its influence has always been most pervasive in the South, members spread the Lost Cause to parts north of the Mason-Dixon line and west of the Mississippi river. A 1912 UDC plaque in Brooklyn commemorating Robert E. Lee was only removed last year; a road the group named for the Confederate general remains in the borough. Seattle’s only Confederate monument was erected by the UDC and not incidentally, carved from a 10-ton block of Stone Mountain, Georgia, where the KKK held its 1915 rebirth ceremony. Even Arlington National Cemetery has a UDC Confederate memorial, erected in 1914 on Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s birthdate. It features a crying black “mammy” figure, a white baby under her arm and another tugging at her apron.
Most of the UDC’s monuments were erected long after the Civil War, in the 1910s and 1950s, effectively monumentalizing white racial resentment during the eras of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. In periods of epidemic anti-black racist violence and intimidation, UDC Confederate markers were visible symbols of white terror.
They still are.
Ladies Memorial Associations formed immediately after the Civil War in battle-ravaged, economically wasted towns across the South. “They were trying to honor Confederate dead at a time when surviving Confederate veterans could not wear their uniforms in public, could not be involved politically, could not hold political office,” says Jalane Schmidt, a professor at the University of Virginia and organizer for the Charlottesville, Virginia, chapter of Black Lives Matter. In an era when the white South was still demoralized by their Civil War loss, these white Southern women—many of them from wealthy, prominent families—set about doing the work of decorating the fallen.
Karen Cox, author of the definitive history of the UDC, 2003’s Dixie’s Daughters, describes the LMAs as concerned with proper burials. “One of the key things Ladies Memorial Associations did early on was try to return soldiers bodies’ from battlefields where they died to their hometowns, and to create Confederate cemeteries,” she says. “They would also raise money for monuments, but the first monuments that they put up were modest, and they were erected in cemeteries.”
At the end of Reconstruction—that brief period when federal intervention made racial equality in the South seem possible—the North pulled its troops out of the South, leaving formerly enslaved blacks to fend for themselves. Power was again assumed by white southern men, Cox writes, and the Lost Cause agenda truly took shape, focusing “less on bereavement and more on celebrating the virtues of the Confederacy.”
In the 1890s, the UDC coalesced from disparate LMA chapters throughout the South, and undertook what is today known as a vast rebranding campaign. Humiliation was transformed into honor in a rewriting of Civil War history that pitted a fictionalized Southern agricultural paradise against a Northern industrialized Goliath. With the war on the battlefield long lost, the UDC aimed its sights on a cultural win.
“The memorial associations had been seen as doing women's work—tending to the dead, remembering those lost, bringing flowers to graves. It was seemingly innocent work confined to graveyards,” says Schmidt. “But the Trojan Horse factor comes in when the [UDC] started taking this form of memorialization, which had been saved for the grieving, out into the public square… That’s when we see the start of Confederate propagandizing. The UDC moves from memorializing in graveyards to monumentalizing in public spaces. And what these monuments did is they raced public spaces as white.”
The UDC chose to erect many monuments in close proximity to legislative and judicial power centers, which is why so many Confederate markers are today located near courthouses and on state capitol grounds—a reminder to black folks that white institutions were not there to serve their interests. This past August, North Carolina’s historical commission declined to take down a UDC Confederate marker, along with two others, from the Raleigh capitol building; a coalition of Charlottesville residents is currently engaged in a fight to remove a 109-year-old UDC “Johnny Reb” statue from a local courthouse.
“The UDC put [its monuments] in places where citizens have to work with their government,” says Cox. “If you're an African-American person or a person of color, you have to pass by that Confederate monument on your way into the courthouse. It was a reminder that you're not likely to get a fair trial or fair treatment inside of that building. That, to me, was one of the UDC’s most overt signs to the local black community that, “We're in charge here. This is a white man's government.”
Around the start of World War I, UDC membership hit a peak of 100,000. In addition to erecting cheap, mass-produced statues from Yankee manufacturers at an astonishing clip, the UDC in this era was venturing into uncharted public relations territory for the time. When the group learned in 1912 that a new transcontinental highway was to be named for Abraham Lincoln, members fundraised and lobbied state legislatures to build a competing cross-country highway named after Jefferson Davis. Though the project was never fully realized, a handful of states still have roadways named for the leader of a rogue U.S. enemy state. In 1923, the UDC successfully lobbied the U.S. Senate to build a Washington, D.C. monument “in memory of the faithful slave mammies of the South.” The project died in the House, but the UDC succeeded in putting up other “loyal slave” markers elsewhere, bolstering the sinister Lost Cause lie that blacks had been content in bondage.
The group also put some serious effort into lauding and normalizing the KKK, which was also in the midst of a membership explosion.
“The UDC always had ties to the Klan,” says Heidi Christensen, former president of the Seattle UDC chapter who quit the group in 2012. “But the connection became more overt in the 1910s. You’ve got Birth of a Nation, and then the second rising of the Klan, and you see [the UDC] openly revering the KKK and defending them as saviors of the white southern race during Reconstruction. Those things made it clear they were loyal to the Klan and saw them as heroes. And in some ways [the UDC was] sort of like the KKK’s more feminine, genteel sister organization."
In a 1915 letter to the designer and original sculptor of the Confederate monument at Stone Mountain, Georgia UDC member Caroline Plane requested Klansmen be represented in the marker because “the Klan… saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule.” One year later, Los Angeles UDC leader Annie Cooper Burton penned a book simply titled The Ku Klux Klan that encouraged every UDC division to get “a memorial tablet dedicated to the Ku Klux Klan.” UDC “historian” Laura Martin Rose’s 1914 book, The Ku Klux Klan or Invisible Empire, today reads like KKK fanfic, brimming with swooning passages about the Klan’s knack for racially terrorizing black people. Rose justifies that terror by leaning into the racist lie about the need to violently protect the sanctity of white womanhood.
“This book was unanimously endorsed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy...,” Rose writes, “[who] pledged to endeavor to secure its adoption as a supplementary reader in the schools and to place it in the libraries of our land.”
The UDC’s endorsement of pro-Confederate textbooks—and bans of those that didn’t promote the Lost Cause—would ultimately shape Southern education and historical memory for generations. That effort started almost immediately after the group’s establishment, when members began promoting textbooks for schoolchildren such as Susan Pendleton Lee’s Advanced School History of the United States. The 1895 book concluded the upside of slavery was that “hundreds of thousands of African savages [were] civilized and Christianized,” and suggested perks included being “fed, clothed, lodged and cared for better than any other menial class on the globe.” According to Cox, the effort to indoctrinate Southern children into the mythology of the Lost Cause—creating “living monuments” who would propagate the UDC’s agenda—became one of the UDC’s greatest priorities and legacies. The UDC’s youth auxiliary, the Children of the Confederacy, was founded in 1917.
Two years later, UDC “historian general” Mildred L. Rutherford published a lengthy 1919 pamphlet titled A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges, and Libraries. The brochure advised school administrators charged with vetting textbooks in “colleges, schools and all scholastic institutions” to reject books that didn’t “accord full justice to the South.” Rutherford’s list of mandates included:
Reject a book that calls a Confederate soldier a traitor, a rebel and the war a rebellion
Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves
Reject a book that speaks of the slaveholder as cruel or unjust to his slaves
Reject a book that glories Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis
The brochure also advised Southern librarians to vandalize books in their own collections that did not adhere to these rules by writing "Unjust to the South" on the title page. This method of vetting history textbooks became common practice in Southern schools from the 1920s through the late 1970s. White Southern children—as well as their black peers, who inherited old textbooks when whites had no more use for them—were steeped in the myths and delusions of white supremacy.
That misinformation campaign has informed the politics of lawmakers from Strom Thurmond to Jeff Beauregard Sessions to Kay Ivey, resulting in policy-making that springs from anti-blackness and Confederate apologia. Neo-Confederate politicians raised on UDC propaganda have in recent years passed cultural heritage laws that make Confederate monument removal illegal and fabricated the existence of black Confederate soldiers to promote the fable that the Confederacy was an exercise in diversity. Virginia Senate candidate Corey Stewart built a campaign platform out of a pile of Confederate monuments draped in rebel flags—and very little else—and secured the GOP nomination.
It’s not just politicians. A 2015 McClatchy-Marist poll found 41 percent of Americans don’t believe in the immutable fact of slavery as the catalyst for the Civil War. And those books aren’t fully out of circulation. Earlier this year, angry parents in Texas complained after discovering their kids had were being taught history from a textbook that goes out of its way to declare some enslavers “kind and generous owners,” among other offensive tidbits.
By the UDC’s own estimates, current membership stands somewhere around 25,000. In 2008, the UDC issued a “Reaffirmation of the Objectives of the United Daughters of the Confederacy,” which began by restating its objectives from the group’s 1919 Articles of Incorporation: “Historical, Benevolent, Educational, Memorial and Patriotic.” But among the Lost Cause rhetoric about “Confederate valor” and references to “the War Between the States” was a update that makes clear UDC efforts to distance itself from its racist legacy and those who carry it forth:
BE IT KNOWN, that The United Daughters of the Confederacy® does not associate with or include in its official UDC functions and events, any individual, group or organization known as unpatriotic, militant, racist or subversive to the United States of America and its Flag, AND
BE IT FURTHER KNOWN, that The United Daughters of the Confederacy® will not associate with any individual, group or organization identified as being militant, unpatriotic, racist or subversive to the United States of America and its Flag.
Even as the rest of the country has erupted in debates, and occasional violence over Confederate monuments, the UDC has generally kept a low profile. Members rarely speak publicly or respond to activists or the media. (The group did not respond to a request for comment on this story by press time.) A rare exception followed the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, an event whose target audience was racists enraged over the proposed removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. Heather Heyer’s murder and the beating of DeAndre Harris proved the violent extremes white racists will go to in order to defend Confederate monuments.
“We are grieved that certain hate groups have taken the Confederate flag and other symbols as their own,” UDC President Patricia M. Bryson wrote on the group’s website. “We as an Organization do not sit in judgment of [our ancestors] nor do we impose the standards of the 21st century on these Americans of the 19th century.”
In this, Bryson inadvertently confirmed the UDC’s continued commitment to ignoring the personhood of black “Americans of the 19th century,” who always recognized the immorality of slavery. New millennium, same old UDC.
Instead of putting new Confederate monuments up—the Sons of Confederate veterans are handling that job quite nicely—the UDC now pursues legal action against those trying to take them down. Over the last few years, the courts have become the primary tool of the UDC in fighting off challenges to their memorials.
In an ongoing case, a Texas chapter of the group sued the city of San Antonio after a council vote brought down a Confederate marker. This past July, a Louisiana UDC chapter announced plans to appeal a federal judge’s dismissal of their lawsuit seeking to prevent removal of a Shreveport Confederate monument. The Tennessee UDC chapter sued Vanderbilt University over its plans to remove “Confederate” from a dormitory name, citing a $50,000 UDC contribution to the building’s construction in 1933. Vanderbilt was ultimately forced to pay the UDC $1.2 million—the 2016 equivalent of the original donation—for the right to wipe the offensive word from the building’s facade.
In August, the city of Franklin, Tennessee, filed suit against a local UDC chapter in response to threats of litigation by the group’s lawyer. The issue? Plans by local officials to put up four African-American history markers near a UDC Confederate monument in a town square to “help tell a fuller story of the Civil War.” But the group that says it is about history and heritage, not hate, claimed it owned not only the Confederate statue but the entire town square, and threatened suit if the African-Americans history memorials went up anywhere near its monument.
There are other less grand ways the UDC continues promoting its damaging and dangerous historical lies. Kirt von Daacke, an Assistant Dean and professor in the History Department at the University of Virginia, and author of a 2012 book titled Freedom Has a Face: Race, Identity, and Community in Jefferson's Virginia, told me in a brief email exchange that the UDC had emailed requesting he “come speak to the group about the ‘happier’ stories during the time of slavery.” He declined.
Earlier this year, Encyclopedia Virginia editor Brendan Wolfe wrote a brilliant response to demands from the state’s UDC branch to revise its entry on the group to omit the term “white supremacy.” (The group also has a petition calling for the same change to its Wikipedia page.)
When I spoke to Wolfe, he was fairly generous in his recognition of how these ideas are the natural runoff of bad historical understanding. The angry emails he’d gotten about the article, he told me, “were all from [members of] the UDC, and they ranged in tone from pretty reasonable to really angry and unreasonable. But from my opinion, a lot were just really woefully misinformed—not just uninformed but misinformed—about some basic history.”
Despite the various ways in which the UDC has contributed to the miseducation of the American public and helped mainstream white racist terror, there’s been little public shaming of the group or its members.
A recent article by AP reporter Allen Breed notes that the government of Virginia still awards its state branch “tens of thousands of dollars for the maintenance of Confederate graves—more than $1.6 million since 1996.” Funding to maintain black grave sites from the late 19th and early 20th centuries only began in 2017, after a series of bills cleared the Virginia General Assembly.
“I think many of us have taken an interest in this group because no one else has,” Heather Redding says, explaining why she and fellow activists have focused their efforts on the UDC as part of a larger strategy of anti-racist action. “It doesn’t seem like there’s been any sort of movement to hold them responsible for the damage they’ve done and for the way they continue to impede racial reconciliation and healing in this country. Once you start going down the rabbit hole of looking at their propaganda, it’s hard to fathom that this group still exists. And the more you realize how entrenched they are in this false narrative they’ve constructed, you can't help but hold them accountable for all the damage they've done over generations and generations.”
“I’m sure these ladies are very nice ladies. I'm sure they’re doting grandmothers and they love kittens. And they are also the Great Aunt Bettys of folks who are sitting on the city council. So how dare you say she is a racist? But that’s part of the problem of the normalization,” says Schmidt. “We, as a country, should have moved beyond this—the fact that these women were able to install monuments that are still here, in some cases, 100 years later, that we can't get rid of. There’s just not the political will to remove them. In as much as political officials don’t want to challenge this, they are passively allowing this ideology to win. And this organization is still winning.”