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Aunt Janet’s 50 Cents

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Images supplied by author; collage by Elizabeth Frierson

April 6, 2011

Aunt Janet’s 50 Cents
On the eve of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, one writer questions the call of this moment

written by Stephanie Hunt

My great aunt Janet was all of four feet tall and maybe 85 pounds, but she raised monuments as if she herself were cut from stone. Janet was a Sunday school superintendent, renegade Montessori teacher, Girl Scout leader, and Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis’s most devoted disciple. Ever. In fact, with Janet’s ferocious rah-rah behind them, I’m thinking the ol’ Rebs still have a fighting chance.

Janet Blum Seippel, my grandfather’s sister, might have been the lone daughter amid three sons, but she was queen daughter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). She was not only a proud member of the Winston-Salem chapter but founded the Real Granddaughters Club and served tirelessly as president of the North Carolina and national UDC. I can still hear her thin, bird-like voice chattering passionately about UDC goings-on during our Sunday visits to her home. She’d show off her plaques (one from the Sons of Confederate Veterans for “perpetuating the traditions of the South”) and snapshots of her beaming beside Mr. Lee’s statue in Richmond or Washington, D.C. or wherever the last UDC convention had been held.

Though barely podium-height, she presided over meetings, urging support to move the local Confederate Monument to a more prominent place. She campaigned for a Nathan B. Forest commemorative stamp and to add Jefferson Davis to the state Hall of Fame. She meant business.

Janet and her fellow Daughters opened their pocketbooks and contributed—sometimes just 50 cents apiece—toward monument restorations, The Confederate Women’s Home, and veterans’ hospitals. Her chapter established a college scholarship in my aunt’s honor, a fund I recently discovered as I was turning over stones, as a parent facing college tuition next year is wont to do. The scholarship is worth up to $1,000 annually—as long as the candidate can claim a certified Confederate bloodline, which thanks to Janet’s meticulous documentation, we can.

As Charleston launches into a four-year observance of the Civil War’s 150-year anniversary, my daughter launches into four years of foundation-laying for her future, possibly, benefitting from Aunt Janet’s legacy. The feminist progressive democrat in me recoils at taking UDC money, and yet I remember Janet’s spunk and pride and think how thrilled she’d be, how perfect the irony.

I can’t say if Janet’s passion was fueled in part by racism, however subtle. I certainly never picked up on it. The Blums were gentle Moravians—dentists, tinsmiths, and craftsmen, not slave-owners. As I understood it, my great, great grandfather, the exalted soldier, simply found himself in a certain place and time answering the call of the moment. Janet’s devotion to the UDC stemmed largely from her devotion to family, and it gave her purpose and satisfaction. Who am I to judge?

The more pertinent question is: what is our place and time, what is the call of this moment? How do we spend this inheritance that we did not ask for? I vote to accept and invest it in an enlightened future, with open doors and opened minds. To no longer build monuments but build momentum, toward the future and away from the past. To lower flags that no longer serve us and hoist hope that anniversaries might point toward perpetuating new traditions—of inclusivity, justice, and healing.

To read our April feature essays on the meaning of the Civil War sesquicentennial, click here.

For information on events for the Civil War sesquicentennial, click here.