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Black Woman Honors Her Confederate Ancestor

Suffolk, VA - Back in October, The Sons of Confederate Veterans held another ceremony honoring one of our Confederate veterans with a new grave marker. This was not unusual, nor was the fact that a descendant of the dead veteran requested the SCV to help in holding the ceremony. What was unusual was the fact that the lady who requested the SCV's help was a black woman named Katheryne Hamilton.

Hamilton's great-grandfather, Jason Boone, was a freeborn black man who served as a laborer for three years with the 41st Virginia Infantry, which saw action at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsvile and Gettysburg and took part in the surrender at Appomattox Court. Family research showed that Skeetertown, where Boone lived, was a racially mixed community.

Hamilton said she doesn't know how Boone came to join the army - whether he was conscripted or he volunteered - but she leans toward the volunteer scenario because he joined about the same time his white neighbors signed up. "It was a different time than now," Hamilton said. "You viewed your neighbor differently. I know my neighbors by sight. In Jason's time, you knew your neighbors well, and you were there for them and they were there for you."

Black history expert and George Washington University history professor James Horton said, "It's not impossible that he volunteered, because there were slave-holding blacks. People do what they must do to survive and support a family, to cope with a difficult situation. I won't give the guy a hard time for doing what he had to do."

As one of thousands of black and white laborers who dug trenches and built breastworks quickly, Boone did work that was indispensable to the army's defenses. The Virginia government voted in 1924 to recognize people such as Boone for their contribution to the Confederate army and offered pensions. Boone got one the same year. Because most of the Confederacy's military records were destroyed when Richmond was abandoned, state officials asked those applying for pensions to have someone vouch for their wartime duty.

Boone sent in his application on March 14, 1924, when he was 91 years old. He stated that he had been in the infantry and rendered service by "ditching, grading and throwing up breast works" from 1862 until the end of the war. His income at the time was listed as "nothing." Suffolk insurance company owner J. Walter Hosier supported Boone's application, saying he "is one of the most worthy and loyal old Negroes in this section, and if the application is in due form I trust that he may have a check as soon as convenient." Boone was approved for a monthly $6.25 pension beginning that year and received it until his death 12 years later.

Katheryne Hamilton's interest in her great-grandfather's military service has unnerved some relatives, who said some things should be left alone. In October, when Hamilton decided to allow the SCV to conduct a Confederate ceremony at the dedication for Boone's new military marker, some family members were appalled. They did not want the Confederate battle flag flying at any ceremony for their kin.

Hamilton is sensitive to any suggestions that she is being manipulated by the SCV. She points out, "I went to the SCV to ask for their help." Hamilton called Commander Lee Hart more than a year ago to ask for his assistance in obtaining an official military stone for Boone, whose only marker at the time was a concrete block. She had only recently discovered Boone's Confederate records and knew from newspaper articles that Hart had arranged for markers for other Confederate veterans.

One evening during the summer, Hart and others came to Hamilton's home in Portsmouth to explain how they would conduct the dedication ceremony. The Confederate flag would be laid across Boone's grave and reenactors would carry other Confederate flags. "They were very matter-of-fact," Hamilton said. "I told them I had a problem with them displaying the flag because this is a black community. I said, 'I don't think the battle flag will be accepted.'"

She said Hart told her, "This is our symbol. This is our emblem. I can't ask the SCV not to use it." Hamilton thought about that. She prayed and consulted with her daughters, Tanya and Kristin.

Hamilton said people often fear what they don't understand, so she read about the war and the flag's history. She listened to what some of the SCV members had to say. She came to see the flags of the Confederacy differently. In its historic setting, it was the battle flag that black and white Southerners rallied around as they marched of to war in defense of their state, homes and families.

"We can't judge 1865 by the standards of 1999," she said. "I decided that I didn't own Jason Browne and I had no rights to him. This is the thing to do for Jason and Jason marched under that flag. He wasn't ashamed. He was proud of it. I can't be in the way of that."

The grave marker ceremony was held on a crisp October Saturday, in the small Landa Cemetery in the Skeetertown section of Suffolk. The one-lane dirt road leading to the burial ground was crammed with cars. About 50 family members attended, along with dozens of SCV and Daughters of the Confederacy wearing period dress.

The Confederate (3rd) national flag covered Boone's grave and the new memorial stone was concealed by a white cloth. A contingent of SCV members from Rocky Mount, NC hauled a cannon into the cemetery and fired it three times at the end of the ceremony. Hamilton spoke, as did her daughter Kristin.

So did Edward Smith, an American University history professor and co-founder of the Civil War Institute. From the podium, he looked out at Hamilton and her family seated in what was clearly the place of honor, "a portrait framed by all these white people all around them who were honoring the honored guests."

"I am a historian," he told the audience of about 200, "and this is history, and you are a part of it. This is the first, something I never thought I'd live to see." Smith called Hamilton a pioneer, a black woman accepting her ties to the Confederacy. "That was unprecedented," he said.
 

Jeff Adams
December 8, 1999