In 1837, my white great-great-great-grandfather bought my black great-great-great-grandmother for $800. In 1871, his son — the half-brother of her son — became the last man killed by Wild Bill Hickok in a gunfight.
That dubious historical curio is unique to my family. But common to other African Americans are the tangled roots of family trees seeded by slave owners.
Slavery is the pivotal experience of African Americans, the most peculiar of American institutions, the foundation of the nation’s wealth and the cause of the Civil War.
But since August 1959, a plaque hanging in the Texas Capitol denies these truths. The Children of the Confederacy Creed plaque pledges to “study and teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is that the war between the states was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery)…”
That’s a lie — one that’s easily disproved.
Lost Cause advocates of the Civil War routinely ignore that the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States explicitly cites slavery as the Confederate states’ reason for seceding.
The Texas Declaration states:
“She was received as a commonwealth, holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy.”
My white great-great-great-grandfather, Philip Haddox Coe, was shot in 1852 while playing poker in a Gonzales saloon. He died eight days later. In the interim, he wrote his will and divided his estate, including slaves, racehorses and stock, among his wife, 10 daughters and two sons.
Three of those slaves were children he fathered through my black great-great-great-grandmother Louisa. Their middle child, Dan, was my great-great-grandfather.
Coe bequeathed his enslaved black children to his free white children. One of his white sons, Philip Houston Coe — the one killed by Hickok — fought for the Confederacy.
In 2010, I wrote a column critical of Governor Rick Perry’s suggestion that Texas secede and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s issuance of a proclamation for Confederate History Month on behalf of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The proclamation didn’t mention slavery.
I noted at the time that the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ website also didn’t mention slavery, but that membership to the organization is open to “all male descendants who served honorably in the Confederate armed services.”
Sarcastically, I noted that Uncle Phil’s service qualified me to be a member and demanded an application. I got one, along with an invitation to a meeting of the San Antonio chapter, which I accepted and wrote about in a newspaper column.
Though I was the only African American in attendance, I was treated graciously and enjoyed the company. One of the members showed me a book documenting the regiments Uncle Phil and other Confederate soldiers fought with.
The meeting commenced with all of us pledging allegiance to the United States of America and ended with me not joining in on their rousing rendition of “Dixie,” a song sang in the supposed dialect of a black man and written for a black-faced minstrel show.
In between, we laughed and shared stories. I leafed through copies of Southern Partisan magazine, one of which had a glowing spread on the first home of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Absent from the story was that Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
After the meeting, one of the wives sweetly said to me, “For these guys, it’s about heritage.”
Which I understand and respect. “Heritage” is the word most often given for the celebration of Confederate statues and plaques. But my heritage — as a son of the Confederacy and a son of slavery — must also be respected.
The Sons of the Confederate Veterans, however good and decent its members are, was no more founded with me in mind than the Children of the Confederacy was formed with any thought of my great-great-grandfather Dan and his enslaved siblings. The “love of justice” proclaimed by the Children of Confederacy plaque doesn’t extend to slaves.
Blacks are never as important as whites; that’s the thread running through the institution of slavery, the rejection of slavery as the cause of the Civil War and these Lost Cause organizations with “Sons” and “Children” in their names. Slavery denied us our humanity, while the Lost Cause groups render us invisible.
The plaque in the state Capitol is bad history and incomplete genealogy, honoring the history of Phil, not Dan; acknowledging my white heritage, not my black.
Most of the men fighting with valor for the Confederate army did not own slaves. But had they won, all slaves would have remained slaves.
The Civil War wasn’t simply a violent metaphor of brother fighting against brother. For some families, such as mine, it was literally brother fighting to keep brother enslaved. It is a cause that at least one side of my family — dual citizens of a Confederate state and the state of slavery — are glad was lost.
The Children of the Confederacy Creed denies that the reason for the Civil War is that my great-great-great-grandfather could buy, own and rape my great-great-great-grandmother and deed their children to his.
The lie told in its place on a plaque outlasting 10 Texas governors should not survive the tenure of an 11th. Governor Abbott, take down that plaque.