Year of Lee sounds bugles of history, race

Published January 19, 2007

Before he showed up for class at Pasco High Thursday morning, history teacher Dean Leferink had some family business to address.

Leferink, commander of the Gen. Jubal A. Early, Camp 556, Sons of Confederate Veterans, drove to Tampa to accept a proclamation from the Hillsborough County Commission declaring 2007 as the Year of Lee. Today, Jan. 19, would have been the Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee's 200th birthday.

This symbolic act is loaded with potential land mines. As I walked into the second floor commission boardroom to watch the brief ceremony, a local gadfly warned me to stay away.

"They're going to honor Robert E. Lee," she said. "Sure you want to go in there?"

That isolated question captures the struggle facing Leferink and those who are committed to honoring the heritage of the Confederacy.

Lee, as Leferink sees it, was the "Knight of Knights," the "last Christian warrior," the noblest symbol of the Confederate cause.

All these years and wars later, and even as our soldiers fight in Iraq, it is Lee who epitomizes the American warrior, duty, loyalty, honor. For many, he is the ultimate American icon.

But to African-Americans and many Northerners, Lee is inextricably linked with a dubious cause - slavery. To us, the stars and bars flag of the Confederacy still represents racism, Jim Crow and oppression. It still provokes raw emotion, like rubbing salt into an open wound. After Leferink left the meeting, an African-American got up and denounced the Lee proclamation.

Still, where others see hate, Leferink insists there's heritage; where others see slavery as the cause of the War between the States, Leferink points to states' rights.

And there is no mistaking Leferink's sincerity and passion, both as a student and teacher of American history. His fascination with history dates back to seventh grade in Louisiana and a school trip to the site of the Battle of Vicksburg in Mississippi. His great-great-grandfather, Pierre Carriere, fought with Confederate troops at the Battle of Port Hudson. That siege ended soon after the Union victory at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.

Leferink's ancestor, a dirt poor sharecropper, survived the war and lived to old age.

Unfortunately, peace didn't bring an end to conflict in the old Confederacy. One of the tragedies of the post Civil War era is the failure of poor Southern whites to find common cause with newly freed slaves. That simmering feud no doubt still influences the way we view the Civil War, how we decide the good guys and the bad guys.

History has decided where Leferink's loyalties lie. He's an avid Civil War re-enactor. This weekend, even as he turns 47, he'll suit up in gray and head for the Brooksville Raid in Hernando County.

But during the week, you'll find him at Pasco High, where he has taught history for the last 15 years. In the classroom, he challenges his students' established notions about heroes and villains.

"I try to crush myths," he said. President Lincoln is one of his favorite targets; Lee's legacy is untouchable.

But it makes you wonder, what if Lee's army had won at Gettysburg?

Chances are I wouldn't be writing this column, and Jan. 19 would definitely be a national holiday.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.