Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, a longtime shrine of the South and home to thousands of Confederate graves, has quietly banned the flying of Confederate flags.
Visitors first noticed the absence of the flags in summer 2020, when anti-racism protests rocking Richmond and much of the U.S. often targeted rebel symbols. Two people familiar with the cemetery said then they understood that Hollywood had taken down the flags, widely seen as symbols of racism, temporarily to remove potential vandalism targets.
Two years later, Confederate flags that were once common at the historic private cemetery are still gone.
It turns out the cemetery’s board of directors adopted a formal flag ban in 2020 – with no public announcement.
“Hollywood does not have an established practice of publishing policies and broadly disseminating them when they are adopted by the board,” said Hollywood spokesman Matt Jenkins, a Richmond lawyer and member of the cemetery’s board. “We are not a public body.”
Jenkins provided the Virginia Mercury a copy of the flag policy, dated July 2, 2020.
It says in part that “against the current backdrop of intentional acts of vandalism and destruction of property, Hollywood’s board has removed from public view all flags of the Confederacy in the interest of protecting and preserving the entirety of the cemetery’s grounds.”
Jenkins declined to say if the ban is permanent. “It (the policy) says what it says. I’m not going to use the word ‘temporary’ or ‘permanent.’ “
Confederate statues on and near Richmond’s Monument Avenue began coming down in 2020, some toppled by protestors and others removed by the city.
The 135-acre Hollywood Cemetery, named for its abundant hollies, lies along the James River next to the Oregon Hill community. Founded in 1847, it is owned by the Hollywood Cemetery Co., a nonprofit corporation. Still a functioning cemetery, Hollywood operates much like a park, welcoming visitors who stroll up and down its hills to view solemn and artistic grave markers under gorgeous oaks, tulip poplars and cypresses, some of which predate the Civil War.
Hollywood is the resting place for two U.S. presidents, James Monroe and John Tyler; Confederate President Jefferson Davis; several Virginia governors; and other dignitaries.
Hollywood bills itself as “one of the most historic and beautiful cemeteries in the United States.”
Among Hollywood’s most striking features are its Confederate graves and memorials, which include a 90-foot-tall granite pyramid.
Virginia Commonwealth University historian Ryan K. Smith said Hollywood used to seek an elite, White clientele. The Confederate flag ban, he said, could help Hollywood move past those racist roots and appeal to a more diverse public.
“They have been worried, and I think rightfully so, about vandalism,” Smith said. “I think Hollywood is also trying to position itself for newer audiences going forward than it cultivated in the past.”
Smith’s 2020 book “Death & Rebirth in a Southern City” examined the religious, racial and Confederate history of Richmond’s cemeteries.
“I think (the ban) is a big deal because it shows just how far public perception against the Confederate flag has turned,” Smith said.
There are several flags of the Confederacy, but the most-recognized and most controversial by far is the Confederate battle flag. It features a blue, star-studded, diagonal cross on a field of red. Though some have defended the flag symbolic of southern heritage, it has long been waved by segregationists and White supremacists.
Word of the ban angered Andrew Bennett Morehead of Hanover County, who had put up and maintained Confederate flags at Hollywood in recent years.
“This is absolutely news to me,” said Morehead, the Richmond area brigade commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a heritage group with about 3,500 members in Virginia.
“If Hollywood has an official stance – no Confederate flags of any type will be flown – I haven’t seen it on anything that I’ve gotten,” Morehead added. He said he thought the 2020 ban was temporary.
“Of all places, Hollywood Cemetery, which is a very historic … landmark, much like Monument Avenue was, is succumbing to the woke society,” Morehead said.
Morehead, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, had been putting up at Hollywood several replicas of the Confederacy’s third, and final, national flag. That lesser-known flag is red and white with a square battle-flag image in its upper left corner.
Figuring enough time had passed since the 2020 protests, Morehead in early May put up a large third-national flag on a pole by the grave of Davis, the Confederate President. A Confederate flag had flown on that pole for years before being taken down amid the protests. Morehead later found that the newly raised flag had been removed. He criticized the cemetery for failing to celebrate “the folks who are interred there that put them on the map.”
Tamara Jenkins, a spokeswoman for Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, indicated Confederate flags are still allowed in city cemeteries. “There is no rule in place to regulate flags on individual graves,” she said by email.
The ‘inner sanctum’
Historian Mary H. Mitchell captured Hollywood’s attraction to aficionados of the Confederacy in her 1985 book, “Hollywood Cemetery: The History of a Southern Shrine.”
“Most of the war’s major battles were fought on Virginia soil, and (Richmond) assumed responsibility for an enormous number of the dead and wounded,” Mitchell wrote.
“Richmond became a symbol of what these men had fought for — a shrine to the Old South and the Lost Cause…If Richmond was the temple of the Lost Cause, Hollywood was its inner sanctum.”
The Lost Cause was a distorted version of history, pushed by the Civil War’s losers, that falsely insisted the war wasn’t about slavery, that enslaved people had been happy and that Confederates were saintly, among other claims.
Hollywood claims to be the home of 18,000 Confederate graves, but modern researchers say the number is probably several thousand smaller. Still, Hollywood and the city’s Oakwood Cemetery in the East End appear to be the top two cemeteries in the U.S. in their numbers of Confederate dead.
It seems clear that Hollywood, like Richmond and much of the South, is struggling to reconcile its past and present. Hollywood’s struggle was evident as far back as 1999, when the foreword to a new edition of Mitchell’s book was written by the late Hunter Holmes McGuire Jr., the great grandson of a prominent Confederate surgeon and a surgeon in his own right.
Hollywood, McGuire wrote, has a “unique drawing power for the growing number of people fascinated by the American Civil War. Some unreconstructed rebels come to mourn a ‘lost cause,’ but more and more people realize that what both sides gained in their crucible of sacrifice was a new and better nation.”
Similarly, Hollywood says on its website today that Confederates “went into battle for what seemed then a noble cause of protecting their homes from northern aggression… Now we know that the cause was not a lost one. These men’s lives, along with those of their northern counterparts, were given to forge a single and better nation.”
The cemetery’s flag policy doesn’t mention perceptions of the flag, but Hollywood’s Jenkins acknowledged the flags are offensive to many people. “Don’t infer from the policy statement that we are insensitive to many people’s feelings about the flag.”
Hollywood’s statement says, “Whether and when it may be appropriate for these flags to be flown again in commemoration of the dead will be determined at a later date.” Asked if Hollywood had set a date to revisit the policy, Jenkins said, “No comment.”
The flags’ potential to draw vandals is a major concern at Hollywood.
In summer 2020, vandals cut a rope and stole a large replica of the third national flag of the Confederacy. Last year vandals caused $50,000 to $100,000 in damage when they knocked over several headstones and spray painted one, though that wasn’t in the Confederate part of the cemetery.
Jenkins said he knew of no arrests in the cases.
A recent visit to Hollywood found visitors with mixed feelings about the flag ban.
“Don’t destroy one man’s heritage for another’s,” said a Civil War buff who declined to give his name.
The man later walked to his vehicle, pulled out a miniature version of the rebels’ third national flag and placed it beside a small Confederate battle flag next to the pyramid.
Nelson Bryant, a Maine native living in Henrico County, said he had no problem with the Confederate flags being removed. Of course, Bryant said with a smile, “Down here I’m a damn Yankee.”
Bryant’s wife Anna, raised in Henrico, said, “I’d like to see it come back, the battle flag, but not necessarily at this time.” Perhaps another generation could better deal with it, she said.
“There’s an awful lot tied to the flag,” she said. “But time heals that.”
Will you help support independent, local journalism?
We need your help. RVAHub is a small, independent publication, and we depend on our readers to help us provide a vital community service. If you enjoy our content, would you consider a donation as small as $5? We would be immensely grateful! Interested in advertising your business, organization, or event? Get the details here.