Confederate History Month Has a New Angle

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Gov. James S. Gilmore III yesterday continued a Virginia tradition by naming April Confederate History Month, but added a new twist - denouncing slavery.

On the 133rd anniversary of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the Republican governor termed slavery "a practice that deprived African-Americans of their God-given inalienable rights, which degraded the human spirit," and "is abhorred and condemned by Virginians."

Mr. Gilmore's proclamation, which also recognized the sacrifices of Confederate officers, soldiers and their families, angered some Southern preservationists.

"I feel insulted that this man [Mr. Gilmore] would cater to a racist hate group like the NAACP," said R. Wayne Byrd Sr. of Danville, state president of the Heritage Preservation Association.

Emmitt Carlton Jr., president of the Virginia NAACP, responded, "Maybe [Mr. Byrd] was confusing us with the Ku Klux Klan," adding that he did not see how that was possible.

Mr. Gilmore, whose inaugural theme was "a time for all Virginians," is trying to walk a tightrope - commemorating Virginia's history while acknowledging the ravages of slavery. Richmond served as capital of the Confederacy for most of the Civil War and many of the war's key battles were fought in Virginia.

Mr. Gilmore's proclamation differs sharply from last year's, issued by Gov. George F. Allen. Mr. Allen saluted the "four-year struggle for independence and sovereign rights," but did not mention slavery. Mr. Allen later apologized to anyone he may have offended.

Mr. Gilmore paid tribute to Confederate officers, and members of the Confederate Army and Navy "who made sacrifices on behalf of their families, homes [and] communities."

He commemorated "the noble spirit and inspiring leadership" of Confederate generals, and that of "the ordinary men and women - free and not free - of the Confederate states."

But Mr. Gilmore also noted that Virginia's "recognition of Confederate history also recognizes that slavery was one of the causes of the war."

Mr. Carlton, an Alexandria resident, stopped short of praising Mr. Gilmore's proclamation.

But he termed "significant" an accompanying statement in which Mr. Gilmore said it is important to remember Confederate soldiers, but "equally important" to acknowledge the suffering of slaves.

"There was a message he was trying to send," Mr. Carlton said. "He didn't simply mention [slavery], he said it is equally important."

Mr. Byrd and a half-dozen supporters held a news conference at Virginia's state Capitol, which once housed the Confederate Congress. Mr. Byrd accused the NAACP of portraying white Southerners as racists for celebrating their culture and recognizing their ancestors.

"We're tried of them trying to hurt us, trying to do away with our pride, history and heritage," he said.

Asked if he concurred with Mr. Gilmore's statement that slavery degraded the human spirit, Mr. Byrd said slaves and their owners often lived in loving, familylike relationships.

Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor and a grandson of slaves, was astounded by Mr. Byrd's remark.

"For people who keep believing slavery was good, they should try being a slave some damn time," he said. …