Young Confederate Historian Defies Racial Stereotype

By Simon, Francesca C. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 9, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Young Confederate Historian Defies Racial Stereotype

Simon, Francesca C., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

One summer night Anthony Cohen walked 42 miles - one leg of a trip that would take him to Canada. Rained on, attacked by dogs, bitten my mosquitoes and stopped by police, his legs tired, his stomach growling, he kept walking from dusk until dawn.

Hundreds of men, women and children had trampled through the same bushes and back roads before him, their hearts pounding in fear. The only difference was they did it more than a hundred years ago as participants in the underground railroad.

Although he traveled by day most of the time, sometimes hopping trains or hitching a ride on a canal boat, he wanted to experience what it was like to travel by night with the moon as his guiding light.

For him, history is a hands-on experience.

A year ago, Mr. Cohen, now 34, joined the Maryland chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, becoming the first black member among 450 in the state.

"I joined because I saw good people, whose only motivation was to preserve history, were being slandered as racist," Mr. Cohen says.

There are five other blacks among the 25,000 members nationwide. Most joined years before Mr. Cohen.

"Tony gives us a perspective we would not be able to have," said Patrick J. Griffin III of Darnestown, lieutenant commander in chief of the Maryland chapter.

"He is an individual who can ameliorate differences between groups. He's a consensus builder who is working to obliterate myths. We all certainly need more of that given the climate of the times," said Mr. Griffin, who met Mr. Cohen several years ago through a historical society.

Mr. Cohen's membership in the Sons came at a time of a heated debate over automobile license plates sponsored by the group that featured the Confederate battle flag.

When black state legislators and Benjamin Chavis, former executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, protested that the plates should not display what they called a racist and divisive symbol of slavery, the Motor Vehicle Administration quickly announced it would recall the plates to avoid offending anyone.

The Sons then took the MVA to court, and a federal judge ruled that the group had the right to keep the plates.

* * *

The Sons of Confederate Veterans characterizes itself as "a patriotic, historical and educational organization" with chapters in 24 states.

Founded in 1896, its literature says it is "dedicated to honoring the sacrifices of the Confederate soldier and sailor, and to preserving Southern culture."

And it believes the plates do just that.

Mr. Cohen, who lives in Silver Spring, was eligible to join because he could prove an ancestor fought on the Confederate side.

Pvt. James H. Sheftal, a white cavalryman, "was my second great-grand uncle," Mr. Cohen says.

A black ancestor, William Sheftal, served as a drummer in a Georgia unit, but there's a missing link that doesn't positively confirm his relationship. "I still haven't been able to find the missing piece," he said.

Between 60,000 and 93,000 blacks fought on the Confederate side, according to Edward Smith, director of American studies at American University, either as slaves accompanying their masters or as fighting men.

"They had to prove they were patriots in hope the future would be better. . . . They hoped they would be rewarded," Mr. Smith said.

"I support the good work of the Sons of Confederate Veterans," Mr.

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