With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Fear of a Black Planet (Part 1)

In 2013, the Confederacy returned to Gettysburg’s battlefield.

In 2015, the Confederacy took the town of Gettysburg.

In 2016, the Confederacy occupied the Peace Light Memorial on the battlefield.

In 2017, the Confederacy pledged allegiance to their flag on the Union side of the battlefield.

In 2019, like each November, the Confederacy marched through the streets of Gettysburg.

In 2020, the Confederacy won. Again.

In 2013, for the sesquicentennial, Gettysburg National Military Park invited visitors either to stand at the Union side of the battlefield’s Highwater Mark, or to gather on West Confederate Avenue, home of the Confederate state monuments, and walk the mile across the fields where Pickett gave the Confederacy’s last Gettysburg gasp (we thought) in that battle. As I recall, the numbers of participants far surpassed GNMP officials’ expectations. About three-quarters of visitors chose the Confederate side. And walked across the battlefield with many, many Confederate battle flags. Seeing images of that in USA Today and other national publications was when I wrote my first article about the Confederacy at Gettysburg and got the first threatening anonymous emails.

In 2015, returning from a trip two weeks after Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susan Jackson, Ethel Lance, and Rev. Myra Thompson were assassinated at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, I drove through the Gettysburg town square on a rainy July Fourth. There were ten or so people, one who looked to be maybe 16 years old, in the middle of the square, several with Confederate flags reflecting on the wet pavement.

Three houses adjacent to our block put out new Confederate battle flags on their front porches. David Seitz, one of my neighbors and a communications professor at Penn State Mont Alto, mentioned to me that Confederate flags and monuments are a form of discourse, and it was all one-way in Gettysburg because nobody was speaking back. So for the next week, Bike Week, anticipating that there would be another display for the Confederacy, I asked my wife and daughter-in-law to employ their creative genius (because I have very little) to make a sign that speaks back. With a nauseous, clenching stomach, I biked up to the square from my house. Sure enough, several people, decked out in period gear, were waving large Confederate flags. I took my sign and occupied one small corner of the square, accompanied at various points by my son, my daughter and her husband, and my wife.

During the biker parade, I’d say the majority expressed support for the Confederate flags. A significant minority did likewise for us—the most memorable being the group of all-black bikers who cursed out the Confederate flaggers and gave us thumbs up as they roared by. Several people talked with us; most of them disagreed, but with civility.


In 2020 an armed woman said she would kill anyone she saw burning a flag. People with what appeared to be AR-15s spread out around us in flanking maneuvers. At the Virginia monument, people yelled at me and my friend Clotaire Celius, who is clearly much darker-skinned than me and my, as Caroline Randall Williams might call it, rape-colored skin, to go back to Africa, and to go get our welfare checks, and of course they employed the N-word. People told Jimmy Schambach and his father Jim, and Gavin Foster, my three white friends who came out to help, that white people like them made them sick. My friend Shawn Palmer, a black retired state trooper and more accustomed to always scanning his surroundings, observed one man at the Mississippi monument as he slowly walked up behind me and put his hand on the gun in his belt. People took pictures of our license plates. The bikers refused to drive by us, waiting until we finally pulled out, and then followed us for two and a half miles, riding nearly right onto Shawn’s bumper. A few hours later, one of them followed Shawn again. Soon after that, in the National Cemetery, about a half hour after armed men and their sympathizers forced out a white local pastor wearing a BLM shirt, Clotaire and I walked in. We were unaware of the pastor’s experience. An older white man holding an American flag lectured us about how we black people had a lot of problems and needed to fix ourselves. When I asked him if white Americans should do likewise among themselves, he—no doubt emboldened by the one hundred or so white people around the only two black men in the cemetery—said no. We walked off mid-lecture. As Clotaire then astutely observed, “Why are they so afraid of two black men? They have guns. We have phones.”

Read entire article at Journal of the Civil War Era