Yes, They’re Pro-Confederacy. But They’re Just the Nicest Ladies.: You can call the United Daughters of the Confederacy a lot of things. But racist? Why, some of their best friends … (Anna Venarchik, December 5, 2023, New Republic)

“The time has come when the South, the true home of the Anglo-Saxon race, which has stood for truth and honesty and righteousness in the past, should come back to the faith and principles for which their forefathers stood.” This 1925 call to make Dixie Confederate again came from Mildred Lewis Rutherford, a prominent historian general of the UDC. A decade prior, a Daughter published The Ku Klux Klan, or Invisible Empire, a children’s textbook that exonerated the Klan. The “heroes” protected white women from “ignorant and vicious negroes” who “considered freedom synonymous with equality” and only wanted “to marry a white wife.” The UDC pledged to disseminate the book to schools and libraries.

These texts are excellent primers of the Lost Cause, a successful, and dangerous, rebranding campaign. The ideology claims the Confederacy fought patriotically for states’ rights, not the right to own Black people as property. It claims the South was the real victim of the war, and that enslaved people appreciated bondage. The belief system disentangled the causes and effects of postwar inequities; it ensured that white supremacy continued to organize the South’s social hierarchy with or without the slave system. Myths supplanted fact in the mind of the white South; heritage became history. This was largely thanks to the Daughters.

Founded in 1894, the UDC devoted itself to caring for veterans and vindicating the Confederacy, as historian Karen Cox chronicles in Dixie’s Daughters. As offspring of the South’s antebellum patriarchy, the Daughters coped with defeat by refusing to remember their forefathers as anything other than noble and just. Chapters proliferated across the South, and Daughters built statues to be “signposts for the future,” as Cox told me, and advocated for textbooks to teach the Lost Cause. UDC influence subsided after World War I, when membership peaked at 100,000, but America’s race-related conflicts of the twenty-first century demonstrate that the Daughters achieved their ultimate goal. By swaying how children understand the past, they built “living monuments” to the Confederacy. “A lot of the things the UDC did,” Caroline Janney, a Civil War historian at the University of Virginia, told me, “we’re still living with today.”

On a Monday afternoon in November 1957, the Daughters convened in Richmond. According to a 1994 UDC magazine, the day remains the second most important in UDC history, the first being the day the organization formed. At the site of the former R.E. Lee Camp Soldiers’ Home, with a high school orchestra performing and more than 700 in attendance, the Daughters debuted their marble headquarters. Just two months after President Eisenhower signed a Civil Rights Act into law—the first of its kind since Reconstruction—the UDC dedicated its building to the Women of the Confederacy.

The memorial also signifies the comfortable position the UDC once held in the Old Dominion. The Daughters settled in the former Confederate capital after Governor William Tuck, who spent his governorship fighting civil rights laws, offered the land. Virginia’s General Assembly approved the offer in 1950 and tacked on $10,000 toward construction fees. The deed, however, included stipulations: If the UDC doesn’t use the property for five years, it reverts to the Commonwealth. The UDC cannot sell the building, because the state controls the land; the group cannot move it, because it’s marble. If they ever couldn’t pay for upkeep, they would have to abandon the memorial.

Within the walls made of white-veined Georgia marble, the headquarters features libraries, archives, and offices for members’ work. As much as the building is a memorial to wartime women, it’s also a monument to the Daughters themselves. They wrote in the building’s 2008 application to the National Register of Historic Places that it was designed to “resemble a mausoleum,” a fitting choice for an organization preoccupied with the dead. The application also includes a more ominous detail: The Daughters iterated that the building should be fireproofed.

The decades brought civil rights to Richmond, and the marble continued to shimmer in the sun. Then in 2015, the white walls were graffitied; four years later, the street was renamed for hometown hero Arthur Ashe. The Memorial to the Women of the Confederacy is now on a boulevard that honors the first Black man to win Wimbledon. But it wasn’t until 2020 that the UDC arrived at its third most important date: In the early hours of May 31, Molotov cocktails sailed through its windows. Outrage over the murder of George Floyd had reached Richmond, and the reckonings were aimed at symbols of Confederate glory. By morning, the UDC’s library was smoldering. In messages that circulated on Facebook, the president general wrote that the office manager watched the attack remotely through security cameras. If she hadn’t called 911, the blaze could have consumed the building. Another Daughter chronicled arriving to the aftermath in a 2023 UDC magazine. She detailed that the fire chief salvaged artifacts as the women waited outside. “I asked him if the 31st Virginia Flag had survived,” she wrote, referring to (as UDC documents suggest) Stonewall Jackson’s flag. “He came back out and shook his head.” The charred, graffitied building would be saved, but the night proved the memorial was not, in fact, fireproof.

In May 2020, this was the scene at the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s headquarters in Richmond, the morning after protests over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Molotov cocktails had sailed through the windows of the building, which was burned, vandalized, and defaced.
In the succeeding weeks, Mayor Levar Stoney, the youngest person ever to hold the title in Richmond, ordered the removal of all Confederate statues from city property. When the last statue, of General A.P. Hill, was lowered in December 2022, Stoney said it marked “the last stand for the Lost Cause in our city.”

When I visited Richmond, I met with Stoney and asked about the statement, considering the UDC’s presence in town. As a nonprofit, it’s free to exist, he said. “But this is a divorce between the city of Richmond and the Lost Cause,” he added, “and when you have a divorce, the other person is still able to live their life, but you are making the claim that this is the end.”

Stoney isn’t the only official looking to sever ties with the Lost Cause. In 2022, General Assembly Minority Leader Don Scott, a Democrat, learned that alongside churches and hospitals, the UDC’s Virginia Division and General Organization receive a special tax exemption on real estate. He told me he was “disgusted” that the government would subsidize a “historically racist organization,” even if the organization no longer sells or purchases much real estate. In January, he proposed a bill to remove the exemption, which failed, he said, after Speaker of the House of Delegates Todd Gilbert, a Republican, “pocketed” the bill so it wasn’t brought to a vote. Gilbert didn’t respond to requests for comment; perhaps the UDC still has some allies in power. Regardless, Scott said he’d reintroduce the bill. “The fact that they still exist is tough to deal with,” he told me. “If you go to Germany, there’s no ‘Daughters of the Nazis.’”