Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Flag-Waving Wahoos: Confederate Symbols at the University of Virginia, 1941-51

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Flag-Waving Wahoos: Confederate Symbols at the University of Virginia, 1941-51

Article excerpt

"SEGREGATION is not one of the immovable folkways of the South," historian C. Vann Woodward told an audience at the University of Virginia four months after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Woodward had traveled from Johns Hopkins University to deliver a series of three lectures on "The Strange Career of Jim Crow," which he informed students and faculty of the university had begun as the New South emerged from the ashes of Reconstruction. Segregation, he averred, was invented by southern conservatives to control an upwardly mobile black population, not just the "rowdy, drunken, surly or ignorant," in the words of a Cavalier Daily reporter. Racial segregation was modern, created in a time of uncertainty for white southerners.1

Woodward's Charlottesville audience had lived under and benefited from segregation. In 1954 the university was still a bastion of white-only education. Its first black student had left after only one semester in Virginia's law school in 1951. Most undergraduates hailed from the South, and a large portion of those had graduated from all-white private high schools. Charlottesville's schools and public places remained segregated. Clearly, though, Charlottesville and the South stood at the brink of change at the time of Woodward's address. University of Virginia students, like all southerners, faced changes at mid-century as their regionally distinct social system was foundering under the pressures of postwar liberalism and a nationalizing culture. At the same time, the South mattered more than ever in American politics and economics. As they had earlier in the century, southerners of this era rediscovered cultural symbols of their Confederate past and reapplied them to a defense of southern distinctiveness. At the University of Virginia, this process began at the outbreak of World War II, when students started to wave the Confederate battle flag at football games against northern college teams. This essay will examine the dense layers of cultural meaning behind the flag's use at the university and how that usage related to similar displays elsewhere in the South and in the rest of the nation. Before the beginning of massive resistance to the Brown decision, the Confederate flag and other southern symbols reflected white southern identity more ambiguously than these symbols did in their later, explicitly anti-African American incarnation. Intraregional difference also complicated such symbols' meanings. Virginia students and fans' adoption of the Confederate battle flag differed from other contemporaneous uses of the flag in the Deep South, which foreshadowed its adoption as an anti-integration political symbol. The young men of Charlottesville flew their flags as a symbol of their segregated world while allowing the flag to stand for broader cultural issues facing the university as an institution, the South as a region, and even the nation in times of war and cultural homogenization.

Decades before the Brown decision, critics had disparaged the quality of southern regional culture. While much of the intelligentsia of the country engaged in the project of defining American culture in the decades following World War I, the South struggled to escape its stereotype as hopelessly backward. At the time of American modernism's birth, the South, with its tradition-laden and folksy culture, faced an uphill battle for respectability. The South's critics, chiefly journalist H. L. Mencken, bitingly questioned the quality and quantity of the region's contribution to high national culture since the Civil War. "If the whole of the late Confederacy were to be engulfed by a tidal wave tomorrow, the effect upon the civilized minority of men in the world would be but little greater than that of a flood on the Yangtse-kiang," Mencken wrote in "The Sahara of the Bozart," published in his Prejudices in 1920. "The South has simply been drained of all its best blood," he claimed, in an ethnocultural slap in the face of southern white supremacy. …

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