As Confederate Statues Fall, the Group Behind Most of Them Stays Quiet

Protesters gather on August 18 in front of the courthouse in Durham, North Carolina, where demonstrators toppled a Confederate statue days earlier. The United Daughters of the Confederacy helped erect that statue and many others. LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty

At the back of Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery, the graveyard outside the nation's capital where former United States presidents, service members and veterans are buried, is a memorial to Confederate soldiers. Since 1914, the 32-foot-tall monument has stood in the middle of concentric circles of buried soldiers, their wives and others. At its top is the figure of a woman, meant to represent the South, gesturing downward to the fallen soldiers. Lower down is the image of a slave following his master. People have called for the monument's removal—including some who claim they are the descendants of the sculptor—but on Wednesday, the area around the memorial was quiet. There were no protesters or activists trying to topple it, as has been the case with Confederate monuments elsewhere in the past two weeks.

The group behind the Arlington monument—and, by some estimates, the majority of the 718 statues and monuments to the Confederacy that the Southern Poverty Law Center identified in April 2016—is the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). Women founded the UDC in Tennessee in 1894, and it became the preeminent women's group for Southern women, according to scholars who have studied it. The nonprofit now has divisions in 33 states and the District of Columbia, but its membership and relevance have diminished.

Related: Where Do Confederate Statues Go After They're Removed?

"It was the club to be in if you were a Southern woman," says Karen L. Cox, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of Dixie's Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. About 30 women attended the first meeting, and by World War I there were 100,000 members, according to Cox. In a typical Southern town with a statue to the Confederacy, she says, "I could almost guarantee you that the UDC would be on that monument somewhere, that they had done the job."

Many cities, states, universities and other places began questioning what to do with such monuments after a white supremacist killed nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. The debate flared up again after August 12, when protesters and counterprotesters clashed in Charlottesville, Virginia. The stated goal of the protest was to oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Protesters included white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan and members of the "alt-right," and a counterprotester named Heather Heyer was killed.

After the incident, officials in Maryland and elsewhere removed statues or announced plans to do so. In Durham, North Carolina, activsts took down a monument. President Donald Trump has condemned the removals, most recently saying during a rally in Phoenix on Wednesday, "They're trying to take away our culture, they're trying to take away our history. And our weak leaders, they do it overnight."

But for more than a week, the UDC remained silent. National leaders of the group did not respond to more than a dozen calls or emails by Newsweek. On Monday, the orgnaization issued a statement, saying in part:

We are grieved that certain hate groups have taken the Confederate flag and other symbols as their own [....] The United Daughters of the Confederacy totally denounces any individual or group that promotes racial divisiveness or white supremacy. And we call on these people to cease using Confederate symbols for their abhorrent and reprehensible purposes.

But the statement went on to defend the statues and called for them to remain standing:

We are saddened that some people find anything connected with the Confederacy to be offensive. Our Confederate ancestors were and are Americans. We as an organization do not sit in judgment of them nor do we impose the standards of the 21st century on these Americans of the 19th century.

It is our sincere wish that our great nation and its citizens will continue to let its fellow Americans, the descendants of Confederate soldiers, honor the memory of their ancestors [....] Join us in denouncing hate groups and affirming that Confederate memorial statues and monuments are part of our shared American history and should remain in place.

At least one local leader of the UDC has spoken up, as have several former leaders. After vandals reportedly defaced a Confederate memorial in Los Angeles, Scarlett Stahl, who heads the California division, told The Wall Street Journal, "I feel very hurt, like this is not my America." She had the monument carted off to a storage facility the following day.

In Maryland, a former leader spoke out after workers in Baltimore removed statues in the early hours of August 16. Carolyn Billups told the The Baltimore Sun, "Rats run at night." She added, referring to the toppling of the statue in Durham, "It's very saddening, but at least the monuments [in Baltimore] were not torn down by angry mobs."

Blood Descendants

On its website, the UDC describes its historic mission as honoring the memory of Confederate veterans, preserving Confederate sites and historical materials, recording the role of women following the Civil War, providing charity to Confederate veterans and their families, assisting descendants of veterans with education and socializing with other members. Women must be at least 16 years old and "lineal or collateral blood descendants of men and women who served" in the Confederacy or "gave material aid to the cause." Younger descendants can join an auxillary group called Children of the Confederacy.

The earliest members were women who lived during the Civil War or grew up in its aftermath, according to Cox, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor and author. The group began erecting monuments "because Southern white men who are defeated can't go around building monuments to themselves," Cox says. "The unnamed goal of the organization was vindication: to vindicate these men from the defeat."

But membership dwindled as generations became further removed from the Civil War and more women sought education and entered the workforce, Cox says, adding that the group today seems "desperate for members."

In 2015, when the monuments debate arose following the Charleston shooting, the organization stayed quiet, as historian Kevin Levin pointed out at the time. But the following year, the UDC's Tennessee division sued Vanderbilt University because the school wanted to remove the word "confederate" from a residence hall even though the organization owned the naming rights, thanks to a 1933 gift. The school had to pay the division $1.2 million.

Since the Charlottesville incident, at least five monuments connected to the group have come down: in Gainesville, Florida (which had been planned prior to the incident); New York City and Kansas City, Missouri; the one toppled in Durham; and the one removed from Los Angeles after it was reportedly vandalized.

But plenty of monuments or other memorials that the UDC funded remain, including stained-glass windows dedicated to Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The cathedral, which Congress chartered in 1893, established a task force to examine the issue and replaced images of Confederate battle flags in the windows. The Lee and Jackson windows will remain until at least June 2018, at which point church leadership will decide their fate, Dean Randy Hollerith tells Newsweek.

The UDC does not seem too eager to rescue its monuments. Hollerith says the organization has not reached out to discuss the issue with the cathedral. In Gainesville, a chapter leader's letter to the city agreeing to accept the statue was just six words long: "We accept the Confederate Soldier Statue." Workers removed it on August 14 "with little fanfare," according to the Associated Press.

Other organizations have been more vocal. Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group for male descendants of Confederate soldiers, said in a statement accompanying a fundraising campaign, "We are facing a crisis. In fact, we are facing the greatest threat to our heritage in modern times." The group blamed "radical leftists" and added, "Make no mistake, we are in a war to save American culture."

Culture is beautiful. For these people, it was destroyed. The same people would destroy yours. Live your culture.

— #SCV (@SCVHQ) April 8, 2016

'Genteel Southern Ladies'

The UDC has faced criticism for more than its silence. In 2000, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and domestic extremists, wrote about the organization, "Although the UDC promotes an image of genteel Southern ladies concerned only with honoring their ancestors—and is, in fact, the least political of the neo-Confederate groups—its publications sometimes belie that benign appearance." The report cited a 1989 article in the organization's magazine that said enslaved people aboard slave ships had about as much room as men in the Royal Navy had, and that the crew aboard those ships suffered more than the enslaved people did.

Kris DuRocher, an associate professor of history at Morehead State University, has made similar claims. "Like the KKK's children's groups, the UDC utilized the Children of the Confederacy to impart to the rising generations their own white-supremacist vision of the future," she wrote in her 2011 book Raising Racists: The Socialization of White Children in the Jim Crow South. In a 1999 interview with Democracy Now!, another historian, James M. McPherson, accused the organization of practicing "thinly veiled support for white supremacy."

But Cox finds the group "pretty innocuous," she says. "They get together...and they have tea and little sandwiches.... You're not going to see them walking through the streets with guns to defend these monuments."