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Confederacy still center of emotional split

Published Sep. 13, 2005

Margaret Cyrise arrived at the Civil War re-enactment in St. Petersburg early.

She had an air-conditioned portable tent and wanted to make sure she could be close to an electrical outlet.

But when others began arriving, dressed in Confederate gray, they balked at the sight of a black woman setting up in their area.

One white woman told her tartly that she was where Confederates would be.

"I'm in the right place then," Cyrise told the woman.

For four years now, since she decided on a lark to attend a Confederate ball in Plant City, Cyrise has traveled Florida and back through time to the days when the country was torn by war.

Cyrise, who works for GTE servicing pay phones, said her presence is not intended to be a freakish oddity. She wants to remind people there can be no historically accurate re-enactment without the presence of blacks.

Historians say that's true. But unlike Cyrise, who portrays a free woman who befriends and helps the Confederates, blacks who helped the Confederate cause were more likely enslaved than free. They knew no other option, or they feared the brutal repercussions resistance would bring.

That view of history led Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Thomas Scott to reject an invitation to read proclamations he and his colleagues signed designating April as Southern Heritage Month and honoring Confederate soldiers.

Marion Lambert, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, wanted Scott to read the proclamations at a Confederate Memorial Day celebration in Brandon today.

When Scott said no, Commissioner Jan Platt was invited to take his place.

Platt, who in 1994 led the fight to retain the Confederate flag as part of the county's official seal before changing her mind and voting to redesign the seal without the flag, initially accepted the invitation. She changed her mind when she learned of Scott's objection.

Commissioners Dottie Berger and Jim Norman brought the proclamation to their colleagues but have said their schedules do not permit them to read them.

Still, that the Sons of Confederate Veterans got the proclamations signed illustrates the benign view many white Southerners have toward the Confederacy.

Gov. Lawton Chiles, whose paper-thin victory over Jeb Bush in 1994 came in no small part because of overwhelming support he got from blacks, signed one proclamation honoring James Henry Brandon, a Confederate soldier who became the namesake of the city of Brandon.

Chiles declared that Brandon "served Florida and the South honourably and with distinction during the War for Southern Independence."

Chiles also signed a proclamation designating April as Florida Confederate History Month, urging people "to engage in historical study of the events of 1861 to 1865 and to solemnly contemplate that time."

The county and state proclamations omit any mention of slavery, which historians say was the primary reason the Confederacy was born.

This is the third straight year the governor has signed the Confederate History Month proclamation, said Ryan Banfill, a spokesman for Chiles.

Banfill described it as a "mini-proclamation" and said its signing was routine.

Asked whether such proclamations elevate the status of groups that ask for them or lend legitimacy to their views of history, Banfill said, "I don't believe you can make that stretch."

As for why the proclamation does not specifically mention slavery, Banfill said the proclamation implicitly suggests slavery be examined.

"You cannot study that time period without studying slavery," Banfill said, noting that there are other notable Civil War events not specifically mentioned in the proclamation.

Virginia Gov. James Gilmore recently drew the ire of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Heritage Preservation Association when he criticized slavery in the Confederate History Month proclamation he signed.

"Our recognition of Confederate history also recognizes that slavery was one of the causes of the war," Gilmore's proclamation says. ". . . Slavery was a practice that deprived African-Americans of their God-given inalienable rights, which degraded the human spirit, is abhorred and condemned by Virginians."

R. Wayne Byrd Sr., president of the Heritage Preservation Association, said he was insulted by Gilmore's remarks.

"If you're talking about the Southern life on a plantation where master and slave loved and cared for each other and had a genuine family concern, I do have a problem with it," Byrd told the Washington Post.

Such warped views of history keep blacks from seeing a Confederate memorial as anything more than a slap in the face, said Navita James, director of the Africana Studies program at the University of South Florida.

"For many African-Americans, the Confederacy still represents white supremacy," James said. "The Confederacy is synonymous with slavery. There is a cultural dance of denial that slavery was a significant part of Southern culture."

James said some blacks would embrace a celebration of Southern heritage as long as embracing the Confederacy wasn't part of the plan.

Lambert said that's not possible. He argues that blacks should embrace the Confederacy as readily as some whites do. He wrote an essay making that point and invited Belinda Womack, a widely known black singer, to perform at the memorial service today in Brandon.

Womack, saying she wants to bring whites and blacks together, accepted the invitation.

"I'm trying to learn and to grow and to forgive," Womack said. "There's so little to look back kindly on. But there are many shining moments in all of that darkness."

For her part, Cyrise agrees with those who say the role of blacks in the Confederacy is overlooked or misunderstood.

She has made friends at the re-enactments and believes her presence not only lends historical accuracy but keeps a fun examination of the period from spilling into hatred.

"My being there helps you confront what kind of person you really are," Cyrise said.

As for her own views on the Civil War and how blacks and whites view that time, Cyrise is blunt.

"It happened," Cyrise said. "(Blacks) can't change the fact that it happened, just like (whites) can't go back and change who won."