“When White Supremacists Ruled Washington,” Brent Staples



Southerners who rose to federal office after the Civil War achieved something the Confederate Army had not: They seized control of Washington and bent it to their will. The Washington National Cathedral illuminated the era of white supremacist domination this month when it dismantled ornate stained-glass windows that portrayed the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as saintly figures.

The windows, installed in 1953, contained the Confederate flag and were the handiwork of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an activist group of well-heeled Southern ladies that was at the height of its influence in the early 20th century, when it raised prodigious amounts for monuments.

The clergy at the National Cathedral began to see the windows differently two years ago, after the white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans in a church in Charleston, S.C. The victims were still being buried when the Very Rev. Gary Hall — then the cathedral’s dean — preached a moving sermon calling for the windows to be dismantled because they celebrated “a cause whose primary reason for being was the preservation and extension of slavery in America.”

Mr. Hall repeated a common misunderstanding when he suggested that the U.D.C. had been a relatively harmless group that was “mainly concerned with fostering respect for Southern heritage.” In truth, the organization did more to advance white supremacist ideology during the first several decades of the 20th century than any other organization in American history.

Its leaders glorified the Ku Klux Klan. They romanticized slavery as a benevolent institution that featured happy, faithful and well-fed bondsmen and women. They spoon-fed these values to the young through racist primers and essay competitions that rewarded children for parroting white supremacist views. This distorted version of history nurtured a generation of well-known segregationists and formed the basis of Southern resistance to the civil rights movement.

The white supremacist agenda pushed by the U.D.C. was ascendant in Washington when the Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson became president in 1913. Wilson promptly filled his administration with segregationists who worked diligently to segregate as much of the work force as they could. Highly paid black workers were driven out or confined to lower-paying jobs, undercutting the nascent black middle class. Many black workers were barred from offices, bathrooms and lunch tables that they once had shared with white co-workers.

The officially sanctioned segregation that took root during the Wilson era deepened under President Warren Harding, whose Southern-born commissioner of public buildings and grounds segregated even the tennis courts near the Washington Monument. The dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 was staged as a Jim Crow event, with black dignitaries banished to a weed-strewn Negro-only seating section where they were roped off from whites and guarded by Marines.

By this time, the ever-resourceful U.D.C. was campaigning to have “mammy monuments’’ — depicting the enslaved black women who had cared for the master’s children — erected in every state. A year after the Lincoln dedication, the Senate voted to appropriate a huge sum to be spent on such a monstrosity in the capital, on Massachusetts Avenue near Sheridan Circle. Mercifully, the bill failed in the House.

As the Yale historian David Blight has written about the episode, “The nation was only narrowly spared the ironic spectacle of unveiling a major memorial to faithful slaves on a prominent avenue in Washington only one year after the dedication of the temple of freedom and union the country has known ever since as the Lincoln Memorial.”

In 1931, some U.D.C. members set out to colonize the most visible house of worship in the country. At one point it suggested memorials for Generals Lee and Jackson, as well as for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Finally, in 1953, the cathedral settled on the stained-glass design with Lee and Jackson.

As it turns out, the cathedral dean who presided over the installation was Francis B. Sayre Jr., an early supporter of the civil rights movement and a grandson of Woodrow Wilson, whose tomb rests in the Cathedral. As Mr. Hall said after the Charleston massacre, neither he nor the church could live, as Mr. Sayre did, with the contradiction of supporting both the civil rights movement and a memorial to men who fought to preserve chattel slavery. The windows had to go.

Brent Staples, 9-27-17

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