‘Dixie Highway’ and the Lingering Disgrace of Confederate Monuments

by John Ellis

In a recent expose, The New York Times calls into question the validity of allowing stretches of roads in Florida to retain the name “Dixie Highway.” The highway system was originally envisioned in the early 20th century as an ambitious project to connect Chicago with Miami. As more states became involved, the project spawned into two parallel roads running north and south, with its northernmost point in Michigan. Some twenty years after construction began, Dixie Highway became absorbed into the national highway system. For years, the dual highways and their various interconnecting east-to-west roads bore the name Dixie Highway and were marked by the white letters DH set against a red and white backdrop. Over time, especially as the Civil Rights Movement’s influence grew, various parts of the system were given the tag of a variety of now well-known national and state highway numbers; fewer and fewer stretches were referred to as Dixie Highway. However, here in Florida, where I live, the name Dixie Highway is not uncommon. And as The New York Times points out, the growing calls to dispose of the name Dixie Highway are still being met with pushback.

In a story coursing with the same themes of culture, racism, and how to remember history, the Orlando Sentinel published an article detailing a federal court of appeal’s decision to hear arguments from a group called “Save Southern Heritage Florida” over the removal of a Confederate monument in 2019. Having failed to block the removal of the monument from Lakeland’s Munn Park, the organization is continuing to fight to preserve their “heritage.”

Even though I was born and raised in the Deep South, I find it shameful that the continued presence of symbols of slavery and overt racism continue to exist in a state with such a disgraceful Jim Crow history. Contrary to groups like “Save Southern Heritage Florida,” I understand that the heritage of the South is hate. And contrary to many of my fellow conservative Christians, including many of my friends and family, I do not believe that removing Confederate monuments and symbols is a leftist attack on history and heritage. The Confederate States of America’s raison d’etre was white supremacy and the wicked insistence on the moral goodness of chattel slavery. Confederate monuments and symbols should never have been erected in the first place. It’s high time those monuments and symbols of racism come crashing down. 

Before getting to the larger theme of the reason for the existence of the Confederacy, a brief history lesson concerning the State of Florida is in order. You see, unlike pro-Confederate organizations, it’s clear to me that the State of Florida should be working hard to demonstrate that it is no longer a place where it’s okay to murder teenage black boys for giving white girls a benign love letter.[1]

If you’re unfamiliar with the 1944 lynching of Willie James Howard, prepare to control your rage (especially if you’re a parent). And as you read, keep in mind that it’s just one of many heartbreaking and infuriating moments of Jim Crow history and was a sinful act that is representative of how deeply racism was and remains embedded in the South.

Among the Christmas Day cards that 15-year-old Willie James Howard handed out to his co-workers at the Van Priest Dime Store in Live Oak, Florida, was a card to fellow teenager Cynthia Goff. The problem was that Willie was black and Cynthia white. Accompanying the card was a boilerplate “love letter” from a teenage boy to a teenage girl.

Confessing that he had a crush on her and that he wished they lived up north (presumably so that his love for her wouldn’t be so problematic), Willie asked her to let him know if she was bothered by his admission. If so, he explained in his letter, “I will forget about it.” Young Cynthia did have a problem with Willie’s amorous expressions. Tragically, instead of letting Willie know, she let her father, who had served as a senator in the State Legislature, read the letter.

Accompanied by two friends, on January 2, 1944, Cynthia’s father forced Willie from his home at gunpoint as the boy’s mother watched in terror. The men then made a detour by his father’s workplace and kidnapped him, too.

Dragging the bound Willie James Howard to the banks of the Suwannee River, the three white men gave him the choice of a bullet or the river. Terrified of the gun menacing him, the teenage boy fell into the river as his horrified and helpless father watched. With his hands and feet tied, Willie’s body was found the next day. For his part, Cynthia Goff’s father insisted that they had tied Willie up so that his father could administer corporal punishment but the boy had willfully committed suicide by diving into the river because he was unwilling to accept his punishment, claiming that he’d “rather die” than be punished. As nonsensical an explanation as can be concocted, but the local authorities were controlled by the KKK, so Goff’s explanation was accepted.

Although coerced out of fear for their life to sign a statement verifying Goff’s version, Willie’s parents continued to insist that their son had been murdered by being forced to choose between drowning or being gunned down. They appealed to the authorities, but the State of Florida turned a blind eye, claiming that no grand jury would believe a black man’s word over a white man’s word.

The NAACP’s Executive Director for Florida Harry Moore continued to press the State of Florida to investigate the murder all the way up to his own murder on Christmas night of 1951 when the KKK firebombed his house.

At the time of his murder, Harry Moore was also actively involved in the legal defense of four black men accused of raping a white woman in Groveland – well, actually three black men, because by the time of the trial, one of them, Ernest Thomas, had been lynched. Dubbed the Groveland Boys, the innocent young men (one of them, Charles Greenlee, was sixteen at the time) were beaten, denied due process, endured the shame of a what amounted to a show trial, and were wrongfully convicted, with three of them being sentenced to death by an all-white jury even though the white doctor who had examined the supposed victim couldn’t find any evidence that a rape had even occurred (the doctor wasn’t allowed to testify, in case you were wondering). Because of his age, Charles Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison. It all boiled down to her word versus their word even though there was actual hard evidence that two of the young men weren’t even in the area when the supposed rape took place.

After Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP succeeded in getting the U.S. Supreme Court to declare a mistrial, the State of Florida promptly scheduled a new one. Before the second trial could take place, though, two of the young men, both veterans who had served in WWII, were murdered by a deputy who was also a prominent member of the KKK. The other young man ended up being sentenced to life in prison. In 2017, the Florida House of Representatives passed a resolution exonerating the Groveland Boys. In 2019, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis officially pardoned the four men. (Edit: In November 2021, Circuit Court Judge Heidi Davis officially exonerated the men after new evidence was uncovered. Their indictments were vacated, and names officially cleared by the courts.)

Recounting the horrible and sinful manifestations of Jim Crow Florida, I could watch my wordcount for this article roll higher and higher. Like the rest of the South, my home state has a despicable history of racism, even though Florida is often overlooked when discussing Jim Crow. As Gilbert King points out in his book Devil in the Grove, “Florida, despite recording a higher number of lynchings and registering more members of the Ku Klux Klan than any other state in the South, inexplicably remained in the shadows of Dixieland in the 1940s. Florida was epithetically ‘south of the South,’ and racial incidents that would have likely attracted national attention had they occurred in Mississippi or Alabama somehow managed to escape scrutiny because they’d taken place in the forgotten land of sun and surf.”[2]

Like the rest of the Jim Crow South, Florida has deep wounds riven into the culture by the horrific sins of racism. And Jim Crow’s lynchings and rapes and violence and dehumanization of people of color didn’t arise in a vacuum. There is a causal line connecting the Jim Crow South back to the racist worldview of the Confederacy.[3]

If you bring up the Civil War to people, especially among a group of conservative Christians, you’re bound to hear that the South seceded over states’ rights and not slavery. Except, when combing through the sufficient and necessary causes of the Civil War, states’ rights was the smoke, slavery the fire. Every single states’ rights issue connected to the Civil War involved what? Well, to answer that, and altering the colloquialism, when it concerns the Confederate States of America, all roads lead to slavery. Besides, if the South had actually been concerned about states’ rights, personal liberty laws and the issues swirling around the evolving fugitive slave laws wouldn’t have played a role in the splintering of this country. You see, the South had no problem running roughshod over states’ rights when it came to ensuring the protection of slavery, as Prigg v. Pennsylvania illustrates.

As important as Prigg v. Pennsylvania was in the line of falling dominoes that culminated in the Civil War, few people know anything about the Supreme Court’s decision.

The background of Prigg is as disgustingly sinful as the lynching of Willie James Howard. In brief, aging slaveowner John Ashmore of Maryland began releasing his slaves in 1821. Among the manumitted slaves were the parents of Margaret Morgan. Before his death, Ashmore released Margaret’s parents. The legal problem, which arose later, is that he didn’t release their young daughter. However, neither did he include her in his estate’s inventory. The assumption was that Ashmore didn’t consider the girl his slave since he had released her parents.

Margaret eventually married the free born black man Jerry Morgan who was from the neighboring free state of Pennsylvania. After several years of living in Maryland, Jerry, Margaret, and their two children moved back to Jerry’s home state where they lived happily ever after. Well, they would’ve lived happily ever after if, for some unknown reason, Ashmore’s widow hadn’t decided nearly two decades after her husband’s death that she wanted Margaret back.

Edward Prigg and his crew of men that Ashmore’s widow sent into Pennsylvania to retrieve Margaret ran into a problem. The great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania disagreed with their claim that Margaret was a slave. Not waiting for the courts to decide the issue, Prigg kidnapped Margaret and her two children and escaped back into Maryland. According to historian H. Robert Baker, “Margaret thereafter disappears from the historical record, with abolitionists later reporting that she and her children were sold further south.”[4]

Before getting to the pertinent details of the SCOTUS decision, the tragic fate of Jerry Morgan needs to be heard.

Understandably distraught over the kidnapping of his wife and children, Jerry traveled to Harrisburg to personally plead with the governor to intervene. While returning home, his jacket was stolen by a crew member of the boat. Worse than the loss of his jacket, his papers declaring him a free man were in one of the pockets. After being unable to prove his status when asked, he was suspected of being a runaway slave and was arrested. Grieving and terrified, he tried to escape by jumping to the shore but fell into the river. Since his hands were tied, he drowned.

It should infuriate us that there is a chance that the descendants of Ashmore’s widow are still enjoying the fruits provided by slavery while there is also a chance that the descendants of Jerry and Margaret Morgan are still suffering from the effects of slavery and its evil twin Jim Crow. And that’s an important rabbit trail about systemic racism that many white evangelicals in America should explore. However, the topic deserves its own article and I’ll have to set it aside for now.

While the Supreme Court reversed Edward Prigg’s conviction, the decision written by Justice Joseph Story angered both free and slave states. On one hand, SCOTUS ruled that Pennsylvania’s laws were unconstitutional because they denied slaveholders their full rights to recover their property (let the depravity of that sink in). On the other hand, William Freehling writes, “In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld states’ right to refuse to help enforce federal laws.”[5]

Infuriated by the Supreme Court’s decision that meant that local and state authorities of the free states didn’t have to lift a finger to help nor provide any aid whatsoever in the recovery of runaway slaves, the South fought back. This led to Virginia Senator James Mason’s infamous Fugitive Slave Law that was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. The law allowed slave owners to force local authorities in the free states to aid them in the recovery of runaway slaves. According to Freehling, “The new national law brought southern limits on white men’s democracy to the North. Nationally as in the South, liberty for whites had to be curtailed wherever danger to black slavery began. Draconian southern-style patrols became the federal device for deterring fugitives, with Northerners coerced into slave-catching and no democratic process protecting the patrolmen’s prey.”[6]

It’s tempting to find a contemporary parallel in conservative Christians being forced to bake cakes for same-sex weddings, but being forced to bake cakes is not near the level of horror and disgust as being forced to help recapture escaped slaves. Don’t misunderstand, I do not believe that conservative Christians should be forced to violate their conscience by being coerced into involvement in a ceremony that they believe (rightfully so) is rebellion against God. My point is that as rightfully upset as we are in the 21st century at the coercion of conservative Christians regarding things like same-sex marriage and pronoun usage, we should be even more outraged at the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Yet, many conservative Christians who are outraged at what’s happening today refuse to acknowledge that the South’s heritage is hate.

If you still don’t believe me that the South’s heritage is racism, look up the South Carolina Negro Seaman Act of 1822 and the subsequent Negro Seaman Acts it inspired in many of the other Southern states. In brief, if you were a black man working on a boat and your boat was docked in the port of a state with a Negro Seaman Act, you were automatically jailed during the duration of your ship’s stay. South Carolina and their Southern brethren were afraid that free black sailors walking around were a threat to their women and to the institution of slavery. Heritage, not hate, though, right?

Like Florida’s Jim Crow heritage, I could roll up my wordcount to book length by providing historical anecdote after anecdote demonstrating how slavery was front and center of the Southern worldview and is always found within the necessary and sufficient causes of the Civil War. The South didn’t care about states’ rights; the South only cared about one states’ right: the right to own slaves. However, as much as I would like to write that book, I’m going to provide two more points of argument before briefly explaining why I believe Confederate monuments and symbols should be removed.

For starters, I’ve discovered that most of the people shouting “it’s heritage, not hate” have never read South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession. In the document, the people of South Carolina make it clear that slavery is the root cause for their secession. You can read the full text by clicking here, but after explaining how the states agreed via the Constitution to protect slavery, the relevant part states:

The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

It later adds:

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

Referring to Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina goes on to declare:

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. … On the 4th day of March next [Lincoln’s inauguration], this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

If that’s not enough, if the words set down in black and white by the first state to secede and the state that kicked off the Civil War aren’t enough, the Vice-President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens should clear up any misgivings people have about why the Civil War was fought. In his “Cornerstone Speech,” Stephens proudly asserts:

[The Confederacy’s] foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

I’ve quoted Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech” so often while making this argument that I practically have the vile thing memorized. Yet, I’ve had people rejoinder that his speech also talks about federalism and states’ rights. In their minds, the words “our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based up this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth” are mere throwaway words. For the contemporary defenders of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens’ deliberate and articulate assertion that “[The Confederacy’s] foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man” carries very little weight. One can only hope that those people are never tasked with explaining what it means for Jesus to be the Church’s cornerstone.

So, yes, Stephens mentioned states’ rights in the “Cornerstone Speech.” But the only states’ right that he and the Confederacy cared about was the right to own slaves. Not only was this evidenced by their words but also by the Southern states’ response to the Northern States’ various personal freedom laws.

Unless you can refute my and Alexander Stephens’ claim that the Confederacy’s main reason for existence was slavery and white supremacy, I see very little room for an argument in support of retaining the name Dixie Highway or for the presence of Confederate monuments and symbols in public spaces.

Having a road named after you is an honor. As a general rule, people don’t erect statues and monuments to those whom society believes acted dishonorably or wickedly. African-Americans in this country have good reason and every right to view the Confederate battle flag, roads named after the Confederacy, statues honoring Confederate leaders, and any other public display of Confederate monuments and symbols as a threat. Because those things are a threat.

Confederate monuments and symbols signify that deep nostalgic feelings for the Confederate States of America still exist. Yes, of course, the Confederate battle flag is about heritage. But that heritage is hate and racism. Christians especially, who are commanded by our King to love our neighbors, should be appalled at the thought of what Confederate monuments and symbols communicate to our neighbors whose ancestors were kidnapped, forced into slavery, and sinned against by this country, specifically the Southern states.

Possibly the most common rebuttal to the arguments for the removal of Confederate monuments and changing the names of roads and schools is the claim that doing so erases history. Flatly, no, it doesn’t.

Whitewashing history books, that’s erasing history. Going a step further, revisionist history of the type that many conservative Christians engage in when saying things like “it’s heritage, not hate” is the erasure of history. Refusing to honor the dishonorable and the wicked is not erasing history. Taking down Confederate statues is no more the erasure of history than it was when the Russians tore down statues of Lenin and Stalin as 1991 concluded.

Some, of course, will bristle at my comparison of the Confederacy to the Soviet Union. For starters, I didn’t compare the Confederacy to the Soviet Union. I simply pointed out that no one that I’m aware of claims that the Russians were doing damage to history because they tore down a bunch of statues – no doubt, some ex-KGB officers nostalgic for their lost power and prestige have said that.[7]

To support the claim that the removal of Confederate monuments and symbols is erasing or rewriting history requires evidence that doing so alters our understanding of what took place. In turn, I’d argue that many of those opposed to the removal are the ones who don’t understand what took place. That, or they do understand but don’t want to publicly admit it because doing so would out them as an inveterate racist.

For another thing, whether Jefferson Davis and company were more or were less evil than Lenin and Stalin is irrelevant. Those who are bothered by my example of Russians tearing down statues need to make a positive argument for the continued presence of Confederate monuments and symbols. Doing so requires demonstrating that the Confederacy and its leaders were men worthy of high public honor.

Many defenders of Confederate monuments point to Robert E. Lee as an honorable man worthy of being publicly esteemed. He didn’t own any slaves and was uncomfortable with slavery, they’ll point out. Well, not so fast.

Even though Robert E. Lee grew up in a rich family and was surrounded by slaves, owing to his birth order he was name-rich, as they say, yet materially poor as an adult. He couldn’t afford any slaves. Thankfully, for him, he married money. His wife did release her slaves, but his father-in-law did not. And after George Washington Parke Custis died, Lee took the full five years before manumitting the slaves left in his charge. Not to mention the obvious fact that he placed his life on the line in the defense of chattel slavery. But, sure, let’s honor the man for being “uncomfortable” with chattel slavery.

For those who want to praise Robert E. Lee for his loyalty to his home state (commonwealth) of Virginia, think of it this way: Imagine that two married doctors who own and operate a woman’s clinic that provides abortions have a daughter. Their daughter is uncomfortable with what her parents do for a living and she wishes that abortion would go away. However, when it’s time for her to get a job, she gets one at her parents’ abortion clinic. She’s not conducting abortions herself and would never do that. Instead, she runs their social media accounts. Even though she disapproves of abortion, she wants to be loyal to her family.

Not a single conservative Christian would describe that imaginary daughter as noble or honorable. While possibly empathizing with her, we would still denounce her decision to side with her family; her loyalty in that instance is not worthy of honor. Likewise, Robert E. Lee is not worthy of the great cultural honor of having statues in his likeness dotting public places nor public schools and roads named in his honor. At best, he should be discussed with tones of disappointment and used as a cautionary tale for how generally positive traits like loyalty shouldn’t take precedence over pursuing holiness by doing what’s righteous and what honors God.

So, yes, and over 4,600 words later, without question, the name Dixie Highway should not be used and any and all statues and monuments honoring the Confederacy should be removed from public places. Christians should not fly nor display Confederate battle flags on their personal property. And those who are positively involved with organizations that exist to protect the honor of the Confederacy should repent before God and cease supporting wickedness. The fact that we’re still having this discussion is shameful and a deep, sinful stain on many conservative churches in the South and demonstrates how little black lives matter to many people in this country.

[1] Here’s the thing, and being brutally honest, I have my suspicions that those who excuse, on even the tiniest level, the Jim Crow South do so because they, too, are somewhere on the chart of uncomfortable when they think about black boys writing love letters to white girls.

[2] Gilbert King, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of New America (New York: Harper, 2012), 104-105.

[3] One of the silliest arguments I’ve heard in defense of the South and in opposition to the Civil Rights Acts of ‘64 and ‘68 as well as the Voting Rights Act of ‘65 is that Jim Crow was government regulation. This libertarian argument is a type of rhetorical bait and switch. While dangling the tempting get-society-off-the-hook-for-racism in the form of “it was the evil government’s fault,” it completely ignores the tragic reality that society (the people) embraced Jim Crow. Who started it is irrelevant when discussing its cultural effects. Likewise, the South’s embrace of Jim Crow means that the system originating as government regulation doesn’t alter the fact that it required legislation to end it. The overwhelming presence of racism in the South meant that the people weren’t going to surrender Jim Crow on their own if the Jim Crow laws had simply been repealed, at least not anytime soon.

[4] H. Robert Baker, Prigg v. Pennsylvania: Slavery, the Supreme Court, and the Ambivalent Constitution (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012), 110.

[5] William Freehling, The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 30.

[6] Freehling, The South vs. The South, 30-31.

[7] I’ll leave it up to you to decide if I’m comparing the “heritage, not hate” crowd to ex-KGB offices nostalgic for the Soviet Union.

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